(Bloomberg) — Top Democrats demanded that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker recuse himself from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, citing hostile statements toward the probe and alleging he has multiple conflicts of interest.
In an emailed letter to Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus, the Department of Justice’s chief ethics official, House and Senate lawmakers said Whitaker’s past statements “indicate a clear bias against the investigation,” and that his relationship with a grand jury witness in the probe raises “additional concerns about his ability to supervise the investigation independently and impartially.”
The lawmakers, including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler, demanded that Lofthus immediately tell them whether he’s advised Whitaker to step aside on the Mueller investigation.
Power to Halt
Whitaker has come under increasing scrutiny for openly criticizing Mueller’s Russia investigation in the past because he now has the power to hobble or halt the probe. President Donald Trump named Whitaker as acting attorney general on Nov. 7 after forcing former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.
“The facts for recusal are very strong here,” said Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California who’s expected to lead the House Intelligence Committee. “This is someone who’s made repeated and prejudicial comments against the investigation,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Democrats vowed to investigate Whitaker if he doesn’t recuse himself. The House Judiciary Committee will summon Whitaker — by subpoena if necessary — to examine his “expressed hostility to the investigation,” said Nadler, the New York Democrat poised to lead the panel.
Given Whitaker’s open criticism of the probe, “how he can possibly supervise it?” Nadler asked rhetorically on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Democrats will specifically scrutinize whether Whitaker made any “commitments to the president about the probe,” Schiff said on NBC. “Mr. Whitaker needs to understand that he will be called to answer.”
Democrats also will seek to pass legislation blocking interference with Mueller’s Russia investigation, Schumer said on CNN.
Whitaker’s appointment “should concern every American — Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative who believes in rule of law and justice,” Schumer said. “He’s already prejudged the Mueller situation. If he stays there, he will create a constitutional crisis by inhibiting Mueller or firing Mueller — so Congress has to act.”
There’s no indication that Whitaker intends to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump hasn’t asked the acting AG to do so, and she doubts Trump would ask Whitaker not to interfere in the probe because that would just prolong it.
Comments Whitaker made in 2017 as a private citizen — shortly before joining the Justice Department as Sessions’ chief of staff — aren’t relevant to his current job, Conway said. “I don’t think that disqualifies somebody from being the chief law enforcement officer at the Department of Justice,” Conway said in a separate “Fox News Sunday” appearance.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina took a similar view. “You don’t recuse somebody because they have opinions different than the people they are overseeing,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, wrote a commentary for CNN in August 2017 with the headline: “Mueller’s Investigation of Trump is Going Too Far.”
Whitaker also argued on CNN last year that the investigation should be curtailed, describing a scenario in which an acting attorney general reduced Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt.”
‘Tested in Court’
Whitaker has told associates that under his leadership the Justice Department won’t cut the budget for Mueller’s investigation, Bloomberg News reported Sunday. But he could limit the probe in other ways.
Democrats seeking Whitaker’s recusal also have seized on the acting attorney general’s relationship with Sam Clovis, who served as a national co-chairman of the Trump presidential campaign and has been interviewed as part of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker served as chairman of Clovis’s failed campaign for Iowa state treasurer in 2014.
Democrats also have argued that Whitaker’s appointment is unconstitutional — a matter Nadler said “very well may be tested in court.”
But Conway insisted that Whitaker’s appointment is valid. The president and his attorneys are confident there are “at least three or four ways this appointment does pass muster,” she said on Fox.
Conway’s husband, Republican lawyer George Conway, co-wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on Nov. 9 calling Whitaker’s appointment unconstitutional.