The U.S.’s new attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, has been critical of the Robert Mueller investigation in the past and may have the jurisdiction to shut it down.
Whitaker was announced as the new attorney general on Wednesday afternoon after U.S. President Donald Trump asked former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.
Whitaker has spent the last year as Sessions’ chief of staff, joining in September 2017. Before that, he was a private practice lawyer in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa.
Whitaker has been consistently critical of the Robert Mueller investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had any involvement with Russia.
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In an August 2017 op-ed on CNN’s website, Whitaker wrote that Mueller was “dangerously close to crossing” a red line because his investigation was overstepping its boundaries and looking into Trump’s personal finances.
He called this perceived overstepping of boundaries a “witch hunt,” mimicking the language Trump has consistently used when referring to the investigation.
Whitaker wrote: “If [Mueller] 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.”
Already, officials are voicing their concern that Whitaker may make moves to close the Russia investigation.
California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein and the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Whitaker should make a “firm commitment not to interfere in the investigation” to the committee.
“No one who lacks Senate confirmation should be placed in charge of [Mueller’s] investigation, especially Matthew Whitaker who publicly criticized Robert Mueller’s work just last year,” Feinstein said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Whitaker should recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, much like Jeff Sessions did to the displeasure of Trump.
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But Whitaker may indeed have direct oversight over the investigation, a justice department spokeswoman indicated on Wednesday.
“The acting attorney general is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice,” spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said.
During a brief stint last year as a conservative legal commentator on CNN, Whitaker often appeared as a Trump defender, saying he saw no evidence the president colluded with Russians during the 2016 campaign or obstructed justice.
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He said on CNN he could see a scenario in which Sessions’ replacement doesn’t fire Mueller but “just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
While working in Des Moines, Whitaker helped start and served for three years as executive director for the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a self-described “ethics watchdog” that often targeted Democratic officials with misconduct investigations and complaints.
He has said that Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted for her email scandal as secretary of state, and that Trump made the right call in firing FBI Director James Comey.
Des Moines attorney Guy Cook, a Democrat who has known Whitaker for years, called him a clear thinker and a “no-nonsense guy who is not to be underestimated.”
“But I think most importantly, from the president’s perspective, he’s loyal,” Cook said. He said that reasonable people can agree with Whitaker’s perspective on the Mueller investigation, but “I’m sure that’s something that got the president’s attention.”
Trump has been consistently critical of Mueller’s investigation. He has said on Twitter that it’s being run by “17 Angry Democrats,” has called on Sessions to halt the investigation in August, and on Wednesday said, “I could fire everybody [on the investigation] right now. But politically, I don’t want to stop it,” when asked if he would remove Mueller.
However, now that the Democrats have control of the House of Representatives, they may pass a bill to protect the special counsel, or re-open a probe after Republicans in the House investigated the meddling and said they found no evidence of collusion.
They also have subpoena power, and can subpoena the release of secret documents related to the investigation or force witnesses to testify in front of them.
— With files from Associated Press and Katie Dangerfield
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