Until Wednesday, not many outside of Iowa had heard of Matthew Whitaker, a former football player for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and a former U.S. Attorney in Iowa. But he’s been waiting on the sidelines, serving as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff since October 2017, and making an impression in the White House: Chief of Staff John Kelly has described him as the West Wing’s “eyes and ears” at the Department of Justice.
And President Trump likes him. With Sessions’ ouster the day after the midterms, Trump has tapped Whitaker to run the entire ship at the DOJ, with special counsel Robert Mueller — and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who would have been next in the natural line of succession — reporting to him.
To be clear, 49-year-old Whitaker has only been appointed acting attorney general, and Trump said he’s working on finding a permanent replacement for Sessions. Under the Vacancies Reform Act, Whitaker can serve for up to 210 days – though he could serve longer than that depending on the confirmation process of his successor. But in the meantime, Trump may have a loyal foot soldier in one of his most important Cabinet positions – maybe even a friend, as the Mueller probe closes in on his inner circle.
Based on his former football career and love of CrossFit, Whitaker is a macho man, which Trump likes. He’s also, like Trump, a prolific poster on Twitter, enjoys golfing (but admits he isn’t good at it), and perhaps most importantly of all, has been deeply skeptical of the Russia investigation.
Down on the Russia probe
Whitaker has been very vocal about the Mueller probe. In radio and TV appearances he's called Mueller's appointment "ridiculous" and "a little fishy." He's even echoed the president's favorite line that "there was no collusion" between the Russians and the Trump campaign, the Daily Beast reported.
“There was interference by the Russians into the election, but that was not collusion with the campaign," Whitaker, then executive director at Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) told the "Wilkow Majority" show in June 2017. “That’s where the Left seems to be combining those two issues.”
In another interview in June, Whitaker said Trump had the power to kill any investigation he wants, though he acknowledged such actions may be "inappropriate," Mother Jones reported Thursday.
The following month, Whitaker criticized the Russia probe in a CNN appearance and suggested how it might be stopped: “So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” he 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.”
And Whitaker shares another enemy with Trump: the Clintons. Whitaker was consumed by the scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s missing emails during her time as U.S. Secretary of State.
According to Mother Jones, Whitaker was FACT’s sole full-time employee in 2015 and 2016. During the 2016 presidential campaign, FACT started looking into conspiracy theories surrounding Clinton’s finances, including that the Clinton Foundation had skirted campaign finance laws by funneling money into Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2008 against Barack Obama.
In a 2016 interview with Breitbart News Daily, Whitaker talked about the Clinton conspiracies, and suggested there was enough evidence for a special prosecutor to launch an official investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Whitaker also blamed the media for not reporting on her affairs thoroughly enough.
“Old-time newspaper men are rolling in their graves at the pass Hillary Clinton is getting currently from newspapers that used to hold politicians accountable and used to do these types of investigations,” Whitaker said.
Coordinating with ICE
Whitaker served as chief of staff at the DOJ during the George W. Bush administration, and in 2004, he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa at Sen. Chuck Grassley’s recommendation, serving from 2004 to 2009. As a federal prosecutor, he pursued a number of immigration cases, and coordinated with ICE in a series of raids on meatpacking plants suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants in 2006.
Whitaker also approved an FBI counterterrorism investigation into political anti-war activists in Iowa City in 2008, who were suspected of plotting to interrupt the upcoming Republican National Conference in Minneapolis later that year. According to the Des Moines Register, who learned of the nine-month surveillance operation two years later, FBI agents staked out activists’ homes, secretly photographed them, went through their trash, and monitored their cell records.
Documents related to the operation, which were obtained by a member of University of Iowa’s Antiwar Committee, showed that agents turned up no evidence that activists were planning anything other than a nonviolent protest at the convention.
When Obama took office and appointed replacements, Whitaker went into the private sector.
He was paid to sit on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, a Miami-based company that earlier this year was ordered to pay a $26 million settlement after federal investigators discovered it was running a vast scam. "As a former U.S. Attorney, I would only align myself with a first-class organization," Whitaker said in a PR statement for the company in 2014. “World Patent Marketing goes beyond making statements about doing business 'ethically' and translate those words into action.”
Friend of the Christian Right
He also served as a volunteer attorney with First Liberty Institute, a Christian-Right legal advocacy group with a strong anti-LGBTQ rights agenda.
In a 2014 blog post published on First Liberty Institute’s site, Whitaker lays out his personal reasons for serving as a volunteer with their organization.
“Tyranny and submission to other religions is on the march,” Whitaker says. “Turn on your TV—you see the horrific visions of what is happening. I worry that our country is like the frog in the pot of water. We need to realize that we are not in a whirlpool tub but a pot of water on its way to boiling.”
That same year, he also launched an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate from Iowa, and came fourth in the Republican primaries. At a candidates’ debate in April 2014, Whitaker said that if elected senator, he would only support federal judges who have a “Biblical view” of justice, specifically New Testament. “If they have a secular worldview, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge,” Whitaker said.