Democrats had a stern message for acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Sunday: If you don’t recuse yourself from overseeing the special counsel’s Russia investigation, expect to be center stage at a hearing in January.
“He’s totally unqualified,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And his only qualification seems to be that he wants to be — that the president wants him to be the hatchet man to destroy the Mueller investigation.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) went a step further by adding that “any role that [Whitaker] plays will be exposed to the public.” Schiff is set to chair the House Intelligence Committee, which under Republican control has also investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“If he has any involvement whatsoever in this Russia probe, we are going to find out whether he made commitments to the president about the probe, whether he is serving as a back channel to the president or his lawyers about the probe, whether he’s doing anything to interfere with the probe,” Schiff told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, vowed to make Whitaker the first witness his powerful panel calls to testify, by subpoena if necessary.
Responding to Nadler’s criticism, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Whitaker was “well-qualified” and someone whom Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Friday called “a superb choice.”
“He has the confidence of the President, Department of Justice leadership and key leaders in Congress,” Kupec added in an emailed statement.
Whitaker was thrust into the headlines on Wednesday when his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announced his resignation after enduring months of President Donald Trump’s attacks and taunts on Twitter. Sessions’ decision held even greater importance because he had recused himself from overseeing the the special counsel’s inquiry. Whitaker’s ascent to the top of the Justice Department means that he, rather than Rosenstein, will now be in charge of Mueller.
A hearing could very well mean that Whitaker would be under lights and in front of Democrats eager to embarrass the White House — the same situation that tripped up Sessions when he was pressed in January 2017 about his contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign. He was later forced to correct his remarks, and the scrutiny surrounding the episode was among the events that preceded his recusal, a move Trump never forgave him for making.
Nadler and other top Democrats point to Whitaker’s litany of statements questioning or even suggesting to curtail the investigation, comments that he made before joining the Justice Department. Whitaker proposed slashing Mueller’s budget as a way to bring the investigation to a close, he parroted the president’s line in 2017 by saying there was “no collusion” between Russia and the Trump campaign, and at the onset of the investigation he questioned whether there was even enough information to conduct a probe.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said all of the statements should be considered irrelevant because Whitaker was a “private citizen” when he made them. Before joining the administration, Whitaker served as a U.S. attorney in Iowa during the George W. Bush administration and was a frequent Republican candidate for office in the state. He also led the conservative advocacy group Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. Among Iowans, he’s known for playing tight end on the 1991 Iowa Hawkeyes football team, which went to the Rose Bowl.
“If you’re talking about Matt Whitaker’s statements as a private citizen a year and a half ago when the Mueller investigation first started, what he has said on cable TV, I don’t think that disqualifies somebody from being the chief law enforcement officer at the Department of Justice, which is an executive function,” Conway told host Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
Even if those statements are outdated, Conway said it would be “a mistake to try to shut down the Mueller investigation” in the way Whitaker’s past comments suggested.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said he’d spoken with Whitaker and would soon meet with him in person, said he was convinced the investigation would not be impeded.
“I am confident the Mueller investigation will be allowed to come to a good solid conclusion, that there’ll be no political influence put on Mr. Mueller by Mr. Whitaker to do anything other than Mr. Mueller’s job,” Graham, an ally of the White House, told Margaret Brennan on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Conway, stressing that it isn’t clear whether Whitaker was even previously read into Mueller’s investigation, since his boss recused himself, added that Whitaker and Trump had never discussed the investigation. Trump went even further on Friday when he told reporters, “I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” an assertion that set off a race between video editors to compose a jump-cut of a month earlier when the president told “Fox & Friends”: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.” The two have also reportedly met in the Oval Office.
“The president does know Matt Whitaker, has gotten to know him over the course of the last year since he has been the chief of staff to the attorney general,” Conway said Sunday in an apparent correction. “The president’s point is it’s not like he’s putting a friend in there who he’s known for his entire life, he’s putting somebody who has been working at the Department of Justice for 13 months now.”
Democrats and some legal scholars, including George Conway, Kellyanne Conway’s husband, have questioned the constitutionality of Whitaker’s appointment because he was not confirmed by the Senate. Whitaker, who takes over the oversight role from Rosenstein, is now overseeing an investigation that has spent millions of dollars investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and ensnared Trump’s deputy campaign manager, campaign manager and a foreign policy adviser.
One possible avenue for ensuring that Mueller completes his investigation would be protecting him specifically through legislation, as a bipartisan bill put forth by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) would do. But as in the past, other Senate Republicans questioned why such a move would be necessary or, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has argued, whether it would even be constitutional.
“Why protect something that’s actually continuing?” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine