Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker won’t recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election interference — against the advice of Justice Department ethics officials.
Whitaker conducted his own ethics review after he was appointed to the position in November, according to a letter the Justice Department sent to Senate leaders on Thursday. Ethics officials concluded that if Whitaker wanted a recommendation, they’d suggest that he recuse himself from the investigation, “because it was their view that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts likely would question the impartiality of the Acting Attorney General.”
But Whitaker’s not taking that advice. He doesn’t have to step aside from the investigation, and the letter noted the decision to do so is ultimately Whitaker’s. But since he’s been publicly skeptical of the special counsel, it seemed like a good idea to some ethics officials. Whitaker went so as far as to recommend ways in which the investigation, led by Robert Mueller, could be stymied.
“So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, 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 said during an interview with CNN in July 2017.
Later that year, in an interview with Sean Hannity, Whitaker said the “investigation by Bob Mueller needs to be limited.”
Whitaker, however, doesn’t see himself as having any conflicts of interest. “Acting Attorney General Whitaker has stated publicly and repeatedly that he is deeply committed to the rule of law and to ensuring the department conduct all matters with the utmost integrity,” the letter reads.
Democrats have hammered Whitaker’s past statements since Sessions was forced out of the Department of Justice in November, in part because he recused himself from the Russia investigation in March 2017, which infuriated President Donald Trump. Trump once said he wouldn’t have hired Sessions if he had known he was going to withdraw himself from the probe, and compared it to betrayal in a Twitter post.
Some legal experts said Whitaker’s appointment was unconstitutional because Whitaker doesn’t have to go through the Senate confirmation process, since he’s only a temporary appointment, and since Sessions’ resignation appeared to be forced.
Trump is set to formally pick William Barr, who served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush’s White, to lead the Justice Department, and he’ll be submitted to the regular confirmation routine next year. Barr has also been critical of the Mueller investigation.
Read the Department of Justice’s full letter:
Cover image: Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker speaks during the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)