WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trumps pick for acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, is a close friend of Trumps 2016 election campaign co-chair, and a former government ethics chief said the friendship makes Whitaker unable to oversee impartially a politically charged investigation into the campaign.
Matthew Whitaker, named on Wednesday to replace Jeff Sessions, will directly oversee Special Prosecutor Robert Muellers investigation into possible links between Trumps campaign team and Russian officials.
Republicans lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than Democrats lost in 1994 or 2010, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were in their first terms as president. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama both went on to win re-election two years after those midterm routs. And while Democrats also lost Senate seats in the first midterm elections under Presidents Clinton and Obama, Mr. Trumps Republicans defied the historical trend by adding to their Senate majority…Mr. Trump did something unusual by increasing turnout among his defenders as well as his opponents. Republicans felt that Mr. Trump had an agenda still worth fighting for, and they were heartened that on several key issues — perhaps most important, judicial appointments — the president had delivered what he promised. That helped to make Tuesday a good night for political engagement overall, and it kept Republican losses below what they would have been if Mr. Trump had simply been an unpopular and polarizing figure…Far from bringing about Mr. Trumps repudiation, whether by a defeated and regretful right or by the country as a whole, the midterm election has only firmed up the lines of conflict for the future. President Trump will be at the center of that conflict, not as an aberration or departure from the norms of politics but as an integral part of the Republican Party — its head as well as its right arm.
Whitaker publicly criticized Muellers investigation before he was hired as Sessions chief of staff last year.
Sam Clovis, who was co-chair of Trumps 2016 campaign and has testified before the grand jury in the Mueller investigation, said he and Whitaker became good friends when they ran against each other as Republicans in a 2014 Senate primary campaign in Iowa. Whitaker also later served as the chairman of a Clovis campaign for state treasurer.
In an interview with Reuters, Clovis said Whitaker is a wonderful man and a dear friend. He added that Whitaker was a sounding board for him when Clovis worked for Trumps campaign.
Walter Shaub, who was director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics for four years before resigning in July 2017, said the friendship between Whitaker and Clovis should disqualify Whitaker from supervising the Mueller investigation.
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Whitaker has to recuse himself under DOJs regulation requiring recusal if you have a personal or political relationship with someone substantially involved in conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution, Shaub told Reuters.
A DOJ regulation cited by Shaub states that employees may not supervise prosecutions or investigations that involve someone with a personal or political relationship.It says the possible conflict can be set aside if the employees supervisor judges that the relationship does not affect the officials impartiality or create the public perception of a conflict.
If Trump is a “victim” of anyone, it’s himself: his inherent dishonesty and rampant egotism seem to make him incapable of not lying and breaking the rules. This served him well as a corrupt real estate speculator, but if he continued this pattern as a candidate for office and then as an officeholder, he deserves exposure and punishment via the Mueller probe.
Trevor Potter, a former Republican commissioner on the Federal Election Commission who now leads the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for more transparency in elections, said the question of whether Whitaker should recuse himself depends on Clovis status in the Mueller investigation.
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If he has a close personal friendship with someone who is involved in the investigation because of his role in the Trump campaign, then that would present a recusal issue, Potter said.
Paul Rosenzweig, a fellow at the non-partisan R Street Institute which specializes in public policy, said he believed Whitakers friendship with Clovis is probably not a problem but that Whitaker should ask the DOJs Professional Responsibility and Accountability Office whether he has a conflict.
Irredeemable means nothing they ever do, think or say can make up for being deplorables. Even if they come to abandon Trump — even if they embrace the social justice warrior agenda and end by praising Allah, peace be upon him — irredeemable means it won’t be enough in Hillary’s eyes to make up for once having been deplorables.
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While he still led the government ethics office, Shaub last year advised the Justice Department to require Sessions recusal from the Mueller probe because Sessions had been a senior adviser to Trump during the election campaign.
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Sessions decision to recuse himself infuriated Trump. After months of publicly criticizing his attorney general, Trump asked him to resign on Wednesday.
Whitakers selection by Trump as acting attorney general drew sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers, who described it as an attempt by the president to undermine and possibly end Muellers investigation.
Muellers team has netted convictions and guilty pleas from several Trump campaign staff members and advisers.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Russia, and describes Muellers investigation as a witch hunt.
The people in the White House are really scared right now, and I wouldnt put it past them to do anything to stop this investigation to keep from being exposed,” said one protester, Karen Cobb.
Moscow has denied U.S. security agencies allegations that it interfered in the election in a bid to help Trump.
A former U.S. attorney and conservative commentator, Whitaker last year wrote an opinion piece for CNN arguing that Mueller would be going too far if he investigated the Trump familys finances.
This group is protesting President Donald Trumps decision to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with acting attorney general Michael Whitaker.
Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker has always had his eye on a higher office, even willing to mount a campaign to become Iowa’s treasurer early in his career simply because the Republican Party needed a candidate.
Mr. Whitaker was trounced in the 2002 election, as expected. But the mundane position was not the goal, fellow Hawkeyes say. Rather, it was to ingratiate himself to the state Republican Party.
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“It was not a competitive race, but he put some goodwill in the Republican bank because of it,” said Guy Cook, a former federal prosecutor who has known Mr. Whitaker for nearly two decades.
They accuse President Donald Trump of crossing the line since he took office, but they said this time, things have really gone too far.
That race, while little remembered, was the start of Mr. Whitaker’s long climb toward higher political positions, ultimately leading to Wednesday, when President Trump named him the acting head of the Justice Department in place of ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Whitaker, speaking on CNN in 2017, said he had respect for Mueller and then went on to say he would be surprised if the special counsel had any concerns about the termination of Sessions and its effect on the investigation. Whitaker felt Mueller would focus on his job, regardless. But, in another interview that year, Whitaker also said he felt there was a red line for the probe.
Top Democrats on Capitol Hill, some of them soon to be powerful committee chairs, fired off letters ordering the White House, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and others to preserve any records they have of Mr. Sessions’ forced resignation, in anticipation of a full congressional investigation.
Meanwhile, legal analysts questioned whether Mr. Trump had the power to leapfrog others, such as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and appoint Mr. Whitaker, who had been chief of staff at the department — a position that did not require Senate confirmation.
Neal K. Katyal, a former Obama administration acting solicitor general, and George T. Conway III, a lawyer and husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote a New York Times column saying the move violates the Constitution’s requirement that all principal officers go through Senate confirmation.
No court challenge had been filed as of Thursday afternoon, leaving Mr. Whitaker ensconced in the position — and all sides wondering what sorts of changes he would make at the department.
In a statement Thursday, the Republican said Whitaker is a “steady hand that will provide good leadership and judgment, and will ensure that the United States Department of Justice upholds the highest standards of the rule of law.”
Marijuana enthusiasts, for example, may be expecting a shift in the department’s get-tough prosecution policy. Marijuana company stocks rose sharply Wednesday as Mr. Sessions was ousted.
Mr. Cook said Mr. Whitaker will be independent and described the acting attorney general as “a man of his word.”
A group of about 100 in front of the Old Capitol in Iowa City chanted “hands off Mueller” and called for protection of the investigation of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“He’s not to be underestimated,” he said. “He is a focused, disciplined guy and nobody’s fool. His reputation is important to him, and those things will come into play as he deals with being the attorney general in these times.”
But F. Montgomery Brown, an Iowa lawyer who has faced off against Mr. Whitaker in the courtroom, worried that his ambition would be a problem.
Hes been described as a Trump loyalist and a possible threat to Special Counsel Robert Muellers probe.
“He’s flying too close to the sun,” said Mr. Brown, a Democrat. “Is attorney general a political job or a job for extremely talented legal professionals, because he’s a political man.”
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After his treasury defeat, Mr. Whitaker worked in Iowa to secure the re-election of President George W. Bush. He coordinated the campaign’s efforts for the Iowa caucuses and racked up credits within the local Republican Party. He was able to parlay his campaign work into confirmation as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa in 2004, despite never prosecuting a criminal case.
“Different parts of the country handle the U.S. attorney’s nominees differently,” Mr. Cook said. “Sometimes you see young people the party thinks is up and coming, sometimes it is given to career prosecutors and a lot of the time you see people rewarded the job for their political activism.”
In a defining moment for Iowa politics, Mr. Whitaker went toe-to-toe with state Sen. Matt McCoy, who was viewed as a rising star in state Democratic politics and was the first openly gay member of the Iowa Legislature.
Mr. Whitaker brought public corruption charges against Mr. McCoy in 2007, saying the senator used his position to force a former business partner to pay him money. Mr. McCoy insisted that the dispute was over a soured business relationship and that he did nothing wrong.
The case largely fell apart with the credibility of the government’s star witness. Former associates depicted the man, Thomas Vasquez, as a drug user, deadbeat and abuser of women. Even his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor called him a pathological liar. A jury acquitted Mr. McCoy in two hours, including time for lunch.
Mr. McCoy said he believes Mr. Whitaker targeted him as a Democrat and as a member of the LGBT community.
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“I think this was completely motivated by him wanting a trophy,” he said. “It was pure ambition, and winning a case against me would have been a political shot in the arm for a guy who had failed politically.”
At the time, Mr. Whitaker, who had strong ties to Iowa’s evangelical community, denied that politics or Mr. McCoy’s sexuality influenced the case.
“I do think the fact that Mr. McCoy was a Democrat and the state’s first openly gay legislator was a factor,” he said. “The two of them are polar opposites, and the jury declared the allegations were baseless with a prompt ‘not guilty’ verdict.”
Local Iowa papers roundly criticized the prosecution. The Des Moines Register in 2007 said the jury’s verdict was “the right one” and called the case an outrage.
Mr. McCoy said he fears Mr. Whitaker won’t be aggressive in prosecuting hate crimes against members of the LGBT community. He praised Mr. Sessions’ efforts to prosecute the killing of a 16-year-old transgender Iowa resident.
“The signal we got from DOJ is that they were going to continue to prosecute hate crimes very strong under Sessions, but I think Whitaker will be on the wrong side of this issue,” he said.
Mr. Whitaker resigned his prosecutor’s post in 2009 with the inauguration of President Obama. He went back into private practice and was co-chairman of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign.
In 2014, Mr. Whitaker ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, coming in third in a Republican primary.
He was later executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative nonprofit that was deeply involved in criticizing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s secret emails.
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Mr. Whitaker also worked as commentator on CNN, where he made the now-famous comments about ending special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation by choking off the funding and argued for limiting the scope of the investigation that he is now running.
Although those statements have drawn media scrutiny in recent days, Mr. Cook noted that Mr. Whitaker made those comments while he was a private citizen.
“He was a paid pundit with a political point of view,” he said. “Those comments were made in that context, and he has a First Amendment right to make whatever comments he wants.”