What about Bob? How Jeff Sessions’ firing could cripple or kill Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation
- Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, has broad power to halt the investigation that has infuriated Donald Trump
- Whitaker previously said the Mueller probe risked becoming a “witch hunt”, and it could be effectively brought to a halt by slashing its budget
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is answering to a new boss, Matthew Whitaker, who has openly criticised his Russia investigation – and has the power to cripple it or end it, just as US President Donald Trump wishes.
Trump never forgave Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the probe that Mueller now runs, and the president delivered on that long-festering frustration on Wednesday, a day after the midterm elections were over.
He forced Sessions to resign and named Whitaker, a former US attorney whose criticisms of Mueller have echoed the president’s, as acting attorney general until Trump nominates someone who would need Senate confirmation.
Whitaker, who became Sessions’s chief of staff last year, has left a paper trail of his views on Mueller’s inquiry.
In July 2017, Whitaker said during an interview on CNN that he could envision a scenario in which an acting attorney general doesn’t fire Mueller but “just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt”.
The next month, Whitaker wrote an opinion article posted on CNN’s website arguing that Mueller’s investigation appeared to be going too far and may constitute a “witch hunt”, embracing one of Trump’s favourite descriptions to discredit the probe.
Citing reports that Mueller was looking into Trump’s finances and those of his family, Whitaker wrote, “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.”
Also last year, Whitaker tweeted “Worth a read” with a link to a newspaper commentary headlined, “Note to Trump’s lawyer: Do not cooperate with Mueller lynch mob”.
There was no indication that Whitaker intended to follow Sessions’ lead and recuse himself from the Russia investigation, despite Democratic demands that he do so. That means he will supplant Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has defended his performance, in overseeing the inquiry.
“Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, citing Whitaker’s “previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter Thursday to Republicans who will control the panel until January demanding “emergency hearings concerning the forced firing, passing bipartisan legislation protecting the special counsel and joining in requesting” preservation of “all relevant materials related to the firing”.
The call to preserve documents was joined by top Democrats on other key panels, including Senator Dianne Feinstein of the Judiciary Committee and Representative Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee, in letters to administration officials.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine was one of the several Republicans who publicly expressed concern about what may happen. “Special Counsel Mueller must be allowed to complete his work without interference – regardless of who is AG,” she said in a tweet without mentioning Whitaker by name.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said he was certain Mueller’s probe will be allowed to “continue to its end” because the Senate won’t confirm a new attorney general otherwise.
Whitaker, 49, a former US attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, received his law degree from the University of Iowa in 1995. Before that, he was an All-American football player and played on the university’s Rose Bowl team in 1991.
In 2014, the Des Moines native ran for the Senate in Iowa, losing in the Republican primary to Joni Ernst, who went on to win the general election.
He also previously directed the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a non-profit watchdog group supported by conservatives that focused mostly on allegations of conflicts and wrongdoing by Democrats including Hillary Clinton.
We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
Whitaker also worked as chairman of Sam Clovis’s failed campaign for Iowa state treasurer in 2014. Clovis had run for the Senate as well and later worked on Trump’s presidential campaign. He has been interviewed as part of Mueller’s Russia probe.
While many Republican lawmakers were silent Wednesday on Whitaker’s appointment and the future of the Mueller probe, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley praised him. “A fellow Iowan, who I’ve known for many years, Matt will work hard and make us proud,” he said in a statement.
Whitaker, in a Justice Department statement released on Wednesday evening, said, “I am committed to leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans.” He added that it had “been a privilege” to work under Sessions.
The shake-up at the Justice Department comes at a crucial point, as Mueller is seeking to wind down parts of his inquiry and deliver some key findings, according to two officials familiar with his plans. As Mueller’s supervisor, Whitaker would decide whether those findings remain secret, are shared with congressional committees, or released to the public.
But there’s no sign that the special counsel is ready to close up shop any time soon – unless he’s forced to do so.
Schiff, who is likely to be the Intelligence panel’s chairman when his party takes over the House next year, said Wednesday that interference with the investigation “would cause a constitutional crisis”.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican critic of Trump, urged Senate action on the long-stalled legislation intended to safeguard Mueller’s inquiry.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued in the past that there was no need for such measures because Mueller wasn’t at risk of being ousted. He didn’t comment on that prospect on Wednesday.