Matthew Whitaker cleared to oversee Robert Mueller's Russia probe
President Donald Trump is calling acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker "a very highly respected man" as he faces criticism about his appointment to replace Jeff Sessions. Yet Trump also said Friday "I don't know Matt Whitaker." (Nov. 9)
WASHINGTON – Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has been cleared by Justice Department ethics officers to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, an official said Thursday.
Whitaker's potential oversight had been questioned because he was sharply critical of the Mueller probe before he joined the department in 2017 as chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Whitaker suggested the probe that began in May 2017 should end and that the department could starve it of funding.
Trump, who has also railed against the Mueller probe as an unjustified "witch hunt," fired Sessions after the midterm election in November and named Whitaker acting attorney general.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017 after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey. Sessions recused himself because he had worked on Trump's campaign.
Rosenstein declined comment Thursday on Whitaker, but offered a strong defense of the Russia inquiry, asserting that it was being “handled appropriately.”
“This department operates under the rule of law without regard to partisan considerations," Rosenstein said.
Trump has nominated William Barr as attorney general, and he awaits Senate confirmation. Asked about a memo to the department that Barr wrote this year that was critical of the Mueller, Rosenstein defended Barr, saying that it reflected the opinion of the former attorney general who did not have the benefit of investigative information.
Rosenstein said he had not shared any details about the investigation with Barr.
“Bill Barr will be an outstanding attorney general when he is confirmed,” Rosenstein said.
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Whitaker's elevation, despite not serving in a Senate-confirmed position at the department, also raised questions about his legitimacy. But Justice lawyers said he was authorized to lead the department.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., have tried repeatedly to expedite a Senate vote on legislation to protect Mueller from being fired. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has blocked a vote, saying the bill isn't needed.