- Ethics officials at the Department of Justice have reportedly advised Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker that he does not need to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe.
- Whitaker, who has been leading the DOJ since Jeff Sessions’ departure in early November, has been scrutinised over his frequent criticisms of the probe and Mueller’s authority.
- Before joining the DOJ, he argued in the media that Mueller’s investigation had “gone too far,” that Trump could shut down the probe by defunding it, and that a president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice.
Ethics officials at the Department of Justice have advised acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker that he does not need to recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election,CNN’s Laura Jarrett reported Thursday.
Whitaker, who has been leading the DOJ since Jeff Sessions’ departure in early November, has been scrutinised over his frequent criticisms of the probe and Mueller’s authority.
Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation in early 2017, after it surfaced that he had misled Congress about his contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign while he was serving as President Donald Trump’s surrogate.
Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein subsequently took over supervising Mueller. In addition to investigating Russia’s meddling, Mueller is also scrutinizing whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to sway the race in his favour and whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in the investigation.
Trump frequently characterises the probe as a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him and his associates aimed at undermining his presidency, and he often publicly castigated Sessions for his recusal.
Media reports have said that Whitaker’s criticisms of Mueller’s authority played a significant role in Trump’s decision to tap him as acting attorney general. Trump appeared to indicate as much during an interview last month as well.
Indeed, Whitaker has a long history of making controversial remarks about the Mueller investigation and has publicly mused about gutting the probe.
The guidance from ethics officials comes after reports that Whitaker does not plan to recuse himself from the investigation, and would not approve a potential request from Mueller to subpoena Trump to testify before a grand jury if he refuses to voluntarily submit to an interview.
In a 2017 CNN op-ed titled “Mueller’s investigation has gone too far,” Whitaker argued that Mueller had “crossed a red line” in examining Trump and his family’s finances.
“If he were to continue to investigate the financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt,” Whitaker wrote.
And in a 2017 CNN interview, he described how Trump could find a loophole to effectively terminate the Mueller probe by defunding it.
“I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” Whitaker said. “And that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
Whitaker claimed in the same interview that a president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice, and that Trump should have been even more forceful in encouraging former FBI director James Comey to shut down his investigation into former Trump campaign advisor Michael Flynn, who ended up pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, and becoming a cooperating witness in the Mueller probe.
“If he wanted to he could have told Jim [Comey] to stop investigating former [Defence Intelligence Agency] director Flynn. And he didn’t … I’m sure he made his preference known. Quite frankly, he’s president of the United States. He can do that,” Whitaker said.
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