Ruth Marcus: Trump appoints a loyalist determined to see no evil
Matthew Whitaker, President Trump’s handpicked selection to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general, is the wrong choice for the job at exactly the wrong time.
Of course, from Trump’s point of view, that is the point. He ousts Sessions, whose alleged disloyalty Trump has bemoaned for months. Under the ordinary rules of succession at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein would take over as acting attorney general until a successor is confirmed. But instead of allowing that to happen, Trump installs Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff and, more to the point, a lawyer who has expressed doubt about, if not outright hostility to, the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
For Trump, this is a problem solved. Out: an attorney general who, following Justice Department rules and heeding the advice of the department’s ethics professionals, recused himself from the Mueller probe. In: Whitaker, who before joining the department announced to the world how he would deal with the meddlesome Mueller.
By starving him of funds. “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, a former U.S. attorney for Iowa, said in July 2017. This wasn’t at some kind of secret conservative cabal — it was on CNN.
Or by slamming the brakes on Mueller’s ability to follow the evidence against Trump or his family. “It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel,” Whitaker wrote in an op-ed for CNN the following month. “If he doesn’t, then Mueller’s investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition. This would not only be out of character for a respected figure like Mueller, but also could be damaging to the President of the United States and his family — and by extension, to the country.”
To review Whitaker’s CNN appearances is to see a loyalist determined to see no evil — political ham-handedness perhaps, but nothing approaching criminality — in the conduct of the president and those around him. “You would always take the meeting,” Whitaker said in July 2017 of Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton. “You certainly want to have any advantage, any legal advantage you can.”
Conversely, Whitaker appears eager to perceive — and prosecute — criminality where Clinton is concerned. When Trump fired FBI director James B. Comey in May 2017, Whitaker raced to his defense. Deriding Comey’s assertion that “no reasonable prosecutor” would have brought charges against Clinton, Whitaker wrote in an op-ed for the Hill, “I was a federal prosecutor for five years and was proud to serve in the Department of Justice, and I would’ve brought that case. ... Regardless of the political consequences, Director Comey should have recommended to Attorney General Loretta Lynch that the Justice Department go forward with prosecuting Clinton, as she is not above the law.” Finally, an attorney general willing to lock her up.
And, perhaps even more important, one with a broad view of presidential prerogatives. Trump, he said in June 2017, was “well within his power of the executive” both to urge Comey to go easy on fired national security adviser Michael Flynn and, eventually, to fire Comey.
Likewise, he said in June 2017, as Trump was reported to be considering firing Mueller, the president “is trying to send a message to the special prosecutor” that “I can reach out and if I want to, I can terminate you. I think that is very dangerous politically, but legally there is certainly a way for that to happen.” Actually, Justice Department rules insulate Mueller from being fired except for cause, and then only by the attorney general — who would be, as of Wednesday afternoon, Whitaker.
Who understands, as well as anyone, the implications of Trump’s maneuver. “It’s hard to watch an attorney general that doesn’t have the confidence of the president,” Whitaker said in July 2017. But, he acknowledged, “to put a new attorney general in is going to be difficult and it is going to raise a lot of political issues up on Capitol Hill.”
As it should with Whitaker’s installation. As it must.