President Donald Trump keeps insisting he doesn’t know the man he seemingly hand-picked to take over the Justice Department.
In a pair of tweets sent early Saturday morning from Paris, Trump claimed — again — that he had “no social contact” with Matthew Whitaker, his pick for acting attorney general following his Wednesday firing of Jeff Sessions. Repeating claims he made on Friday that he didn’t know or speak to Whitaker about the Mueller investigation, Trump tweeted that he hadn’t previously known his new Cabinet-level official, “except primarily as he traveled with A.G. Sessions.”
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop pointed out Friday, this is easily disprovable. Multiple sources — from the Washington Post to the New York Times — report that Trump was frequently briefed by Whitaker, whom he considered his “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, because he preferred not to talk to Sessions.
That personal connection has raised eyebrows because Whitaker wasn’t the natural choice: Trump had to go around the DOJ’s line of succession, under which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would take over, in order to pick him. None of Trump’s denials — on Friday or from France Saturday — do much to assuage concerns that he specifically wanted to install a friendly face who might rein in or end Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Matthew G. Whitaker is a highly respected former U.S. Attorney from Iowa. He was chosen by Jeff Sessions to be his Chief of Staff. I did not know Mr. Whitaker. Likewise, as Chief, I did not know Mr. Whitaker except primarily as he traveled with A.G. Sessions. No social contact…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2018
Trump’s latest comments are also at odds with the another recounting of the two men’s close relationship: Murray Waas reported in a Vox exclusive Friday that as Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker directly counseled the White House on investigating Clinton — behind his boss’s back. While Sessions, Rosenstein, and other senior department officials resisted Trump’s demands to open politically motivated investigations into this enemies, Whitaker met with the president privately to discuss how they might pressure Sessions and Rosenstein to accede:
Sources say that Whitaker presented himself as a sympathetic ear to both Sessions and Rosenstein — telling them he supported their efforts to prevent the president from politicizing the Justice Department. A person close to Whitaker suggested to me that the then-chief of staff was only attempting to diffuse the tension between the president and his attorney general and deputy attorney general, and facilitate an agreement between the two sides.
But two other people with firsthand information about the matter told me that Whitaker, in his conversations with the president, presented himself as a vigorous supporter of Trump’s position and “committed to extract as much as he could from the Justice Department on the president’s behalf.”
One administration official with knowledge of the matter told me: “Whitaker let it be known [in the White House] that he was on a team, and that was the president’s team.”
Whitaker also counseled Trump on how to pressure the Justice Department into naming a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton.
As to whether Trump “knew” Whitaker, Waas reports that Sessions’ chief of staff met with the president at the White House at least 10 times, and “frequently spoke by phone with both Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly… On many of those phone calls, nobody else was on the phone except for the president and Whitaker, or only Kelly and Whitaker.”
Trump likely picked Whitaker to help him fix a few headaches. Instead, he’s causing more.
Trump has good reason to pretend, however implausibly, that he doesn’t know Whitaker. Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed concern over the acting attorney general’s public criticism of Mueller’s investigation — an investigation he now oversees.
As a CNN legal commentator, Whitaker wrote that “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far,” calling it a “witch hunt.” As acting attorney general, Whitaker will have power to oversee, curtail, or even shut down the investigation. The investigation has been a thorn in Trump’s side, one he has publicly disparaged ad nauseam, recently calling it a “Rigged Witch Hunt” that Sessions ought to stop.
That’s something Whitaker has thoughts about. In a CNN appearance before he became Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker laid out one way that Mueller might be curtailed: “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 has also been highly critical of Hillary Clinton, repeatedly suggesting she ought to be investigated.
Other elements of Whitaker’s past raise questions about his suitability as attorney general. Whitaker served as an advisory-board member of a Florida-based company now under FBI investigation for scamming $26 million from customers, the Wall Street Journal reported. He appeared in promotional videos and was quoted in company press releases, drawing on his background as a US attorney to reassure customers.
And footage from his failed 2014 Senate bid shows him arguing that states have the right to nullify federal law, something constitutional experts disagree with.
Given all that, Trump’s denials might make sense politically — if not factually.