This is a developing story.
Last year, Matthew Whitaker said that the Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling was “going too far” and risked becoming a “witch hunt”. Today, he assumes oversight over that investigation.
Whitaker replaces former US attorney general Jeff Sessions, who resigned at Trump’s request. Sessions had enraged the president by recusing himself from Mueller’s probe.
Whitaker, who will serve in an acting capacity, previously said Mueller would be “dangerously close to crossing” a “red line” if he looked into Trump’s finances, writing in a 2017 CNN op-ed. In contrast to many other experts, Whitaker argued that Mueller does not have “broad, far-reaching powers” in the probe.
Now, Whitaker will reportedly take charge of the probe’s oversight. Rosenstein, long considered a protector of Robert Mueller’s freedom to investigate, will no longer oversee it.
Whitaker can serve without Senate confirmation for 210 days under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (pdf, p.11). Congress has no way of forcing him to recuse himself on Mueller’s investigation over his previously stated views, former Watergate prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig told Quartz.
On live TV, Whitaker once sketched out a scenario in which Sessions was fired and his replacement doesn’t fire Mueller but undercuts his investigation. “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced, it would [be a] recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said on CNN in Jul. 2017.
In a June 2017 radio interview discussing former FBI director James Comey’s Congressional testimony on his firing by Trump, Whitaker said “there is no criminal obstruction of justice charge to be had here [against Trump].” Obstruction of justice is one of the charges Mueller is believed to be pursuing. He has also reportedly defended Donald Trump Jr.’s decision to meet a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, saying, “You would always take the meeting.”
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer responded to Sessions’ resignation by saying tampering with the Russia probe could lead to a “constitutional crisis.” Schumer called for Whitaker to follow Session’s example by recusing himself.
Whitaker has also previously written that he would indict Hillary Clinton.