- A senior DOJ ethics official reportedly advised Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe, but did not offer a formal recommendation.
- Whitaker’s own hand-picked team of advisers, the identities of whom are still unknown, gave him the all-clear, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
- Whitaker’s impartiality in overseeing the Mueller probe has been questioned over his long track record of disparaging the probe multiple times in the media before joining the DOJ.
A senior DOJ ethics official advised Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but Whitaker’s own hand-picked team of advisers gave him the all-clear, the Washington Post reported Thursday.
The Washington Post report comes after CNN initially reported that Whitaker had, in fact, been fully approved to oversee the probe. Whitaker, previously the chief of staff to former AG Jeff Sessions, took over as acting AG after Sessions was forced out in early November.
A letter sent from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that despite the appearance of a conflict of interest given Whitaker’s long track record of criticising the Mueller probe, Whitaker still plans to oversee it.
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.
Mueller’s investigation is not only examining Russian interference in the 2016 election, but also whether Trump obstructed FBI and special counsel investigations and tampered with witnesses in the process. Whitaker is also friends with former Trump campaign advisor Sam Clovis, a witness to events being examined by Mueller.
In the letter, Assistant AG Boyd explained that ethics officials were reluctant to issue an official recommendation to Whitaker because there was no existing precedent for a DOJ official recusing themselves from overseeing an investigation over statements they made in the media before joining the DOJ.
If ethics officials were to make an official recommendation, the letter said, they would formally advise Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the probe because “a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would likely question the impartiality of the Acting Attorney General,” but the matter was a “close call” with “arguments that could be made either way.”
The letter also added that Whitaker, however, is defending him not recusing himself from the probe because his last critical statements of Mueller were made over 16 months ago, he had publicly expressed his intent not to fire Mueller, and does not believe Mueller has violated any DOJ guidelines.
While Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will continue to manage the everyday operations of the investigation, Whitaker may begin to receive briefings, the Post reported.
DOJ veterans and ethics experts reacted with a mix of dismay and concern over Whitaker’s intent not to recuse himself.
Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesman, expressed alarm over the fact that Whitaker enlisted his own team of advisers, the identities of whom are unknown, to give him some cover.
“This is turning into an enormous scandal. Ethics officials told Whitaker they would recommend recusal, so he set up a different group of officials (probably political appointees, but unclear) to make a different recommendation,”he wrote. “What in the hell is going on at DOJ?”
Former White House ethics counsel Walter Shaub didn’t mince words to describe the events. “I didn’t think it was possible to feel this level of disgust. The ethics program is a soggy moth wing,” he wrote.
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