Donald Trump’s disputed choice for Acting Attorney General just made a highly controversial decision about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe which could have drastic consequences.
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Acting AG Matthew Whittaker has announced that rather than recuse himself from the investigation — which is what senior Department of Justice ethics officials proposed — he has decided to step into the chain of command above Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein to directly oversee former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
While CNN reports that Rosenstein’s office is still running day-to-day affairs with Mueller’s team, journalists at the Washington Post point out that Whitaker made an end run past the DOJ’s senior ethics officials:
A senior Justice Department ethics official concluded acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker should recuse from overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe examining President Trump, but advisers to Whitaker recommended the opposite and he has no plans to step aside, according to people familiar with the matter.
Whitaker never asked Justice Department ethics officials for a recommendation, nor did he receive a formal recommendation, this official said.
Those “advisors” happen to be a hand-picked team of lawyers that he specifically assembled in order to cover his bases and compose a justification for his failure to recuse himself.
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. What in the hell is going on at DOJ? https://t.co/gYBeY3RoGP
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) December 20, 2018
It gets better. DOJ won't even disclose the identify of the team they assembled to countermand the ethics recommendation that Whitaker recuse: "The senior official who described the Whitaker discussions refused to identify the particular Justice Department employees involved." https://t.co/6wPqm0s6Ha
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) December 20, 2018
By refusing to recuse himself, Whitaker is ensuring that he retains authority over the Special Counsel’s investigation and his ability to abuse his position in order to protect the President from justice.
Whitaker has publicly slammed the Mueller probe eleven times on national television, which indicates obvious bias and should be disqualifying since he’s already floated different ideas for how he could derail the investigation, like if the Department “reduces [Mueller’s] budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
But that caught the eye of someone in the Trump Administration and landed the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa the nation’s top Justice Department job.
Last September, Trump rewarded him with a senior DOJ post as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, despite being under an active investigation by both the FBI and the FTC, to whom he appears to have lied to try and shake the probe.
The entire reason Trump forced out former AG Sessions was his necessary and proper recusal from the Trump-Russia probe two months before Mueller’s appointment after his secret pre-election meetings with the Russian ambassador had been exposed.
In addition to the above reasons for Acting AG Whitaker to recuse himself, the Iowan held a political campaign position under one of Mueller’s key witnesses, former Trump campaign deputy Chairman Sam Clovis. Clovis even told Reuters that Whitaker acted as a sounding board, and legal experts say that means he was an informal advisor to Trump’s campaign, which is, of course, the target of Muellers’ investigation.
A major aggravating factor in Whitaker’s decision to interfere in the Mueller probe is that he’s facing no less than ten legal challenges aiming to end his unlawful appointment to America’s top law enforcement job by Trump.
Ironically, one of the most serious challenges to Matt Whitaker’s Acting AG appointment has come from a grand jury witness challenging the legitimacy of Mueller’s probe by saying that the illegal appointment removes the government’s jurisdiction to investigate.
Mueller’s team responded that Whitaker’s presence atop the DOJ doesn’t impact his team’s authority to investigate and prosecute Trump, his company, his campaign, his inaugural committee, and his administration.
In just two weeks, Democrats will take over the House of Representatives an the GOP’s free ride will come to an end, as the House Judiciary Committee already announced three weeks ago that they’ll demand him to appear and explain himself come January.
But nobody knows how much damage Matthew Whitaker can do to Mueller’s probe or how much secret information he can ferret out to the Trump White House over the holidays as Republican lame ducks concern themselves more with the President’s childish demands for a border wall than overseeing the top officials in charge of America’s national security.
We do know that placing Trump’s handpicked crony into Mueller’s top-secret investigation could pose grave problems the next time the Special Counsel looks to indict someone and Whitaker refuses, or when he completes his probe and the Acting AG tries to bury Mueller’s report.
Watch the legendary Carl Bernstein describe on CNN how Acting AG Whitaker spies on the DOJ for Donald Trump: