WASHINGTON -- Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added that they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Donald Trump as part of that investigation.
Since stepping into his new role on Wednesday, Whitaker has faced questions -- principally from Democrats -- about whether he should recuse from the Russia investigation, given that he has written opinion pieces in the past about the investigation, and is a friend and political ally of a witness.
On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he has no intention of taking himself off the Russia case.
Ethics officials at the Justice Department are likely to review his past work to see if he has any financial or personal conflicts. In many instances, that office does not require a Justice Department official to recuse, but suggests a course of action. In the past, senior Justice Department officials tended to follow such advice, but they are rarely required to do so, according to officials familiar with the process.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Officials there have said Whitaker will follow the regular procedure in handling any ethics issues that arise.
On Thursday, a coalition of 18 state attorneys general sent a letter to Whitaker calling on him to recuse himself from the special counsel's Russia probe.
In the letter, they refer to Whitaker's "widely-circulated public comments criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election."
They say Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should "continue to supervise" the Mueller probe.
The letter was signed by the attorneys general of Massachusetts, New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia.
In 2014, Whitaker chaired the campaign of Sam Clovis, a Republican candidate for Iowa state treasurer. Clovis went on to work as a Trump campaign adviser and has become a witness in the investigation by Mueller.
The Justice Department advises employees that "generally, an employee should seek advice from an ethics official before participating in any matter in which he impartiality could be questioned." Regulations prohibit employees, "without written authorization, from participating in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution."
Ethics officials might advise Whitaker that his commentary created the appearance of a conflict of interest and leave the decision to him. If they recommended forcefully that he recuse himself and he declined, Whitaker could then be referred to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, and his license to practice law could be put at issue.
Whitaker's elevation to become the nation's top law enforcement official followed the ouster Wednesday of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions had endured months of public criticism from Trump, who soured on Sessions because he recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation shortly after he arrived at the Justice Department.
The two people close to Whitaker also said they strongly believe he would not approve any request from Mueller to subpoena the president. Mueller and Trump's lawyers have negotiated for months about a possible interview, with no agreement in sight.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the only Democrat who voted to confirm Sessions as attorney general, said Thursday that Trump's decision to force him out of office was "a big mistake."
Asked during an appearance on CBS This Morning if he thinks Trump's move has brought the country to a constitutional crisis, Manchin said: "I think we're on the verge of that."
Manchin said that while Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, was more conservative than he is, he showed integrity as attorney general.
"The rule of law meant everything to Jeff, I knew that, and I think he stuck with that," Manchin said. "I think it's a big mistake to let Jeff Sessions go."
Manchin, who was re-elected on Tuesday in a state where Trump remains popular, also voiced concern about Whitaker's past criticism of the Mueller investigation before taking the job as Sessions' chief of staff at the Justice Department.
"What raises my concerns is a person that's been so vocal against the investigation that was going on now put in charge a day after the election," Manchin said. "I think that sheds bad light on it. I think that gives concern to every senator, Democrat and Republican. ... Looking like it's been tilted one way or another is wrong."
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Thursday that he doesn't believe Trump will stop Mueller's Russia investigation.
"The president has said on multiple occasions the Mueller investigation should be completed," McConnell said in an interview with Lexington, Ky.-based radio station WVLK, according to CBS News. "He [wishes] it would happen sooner. But I don't think there's any chance that the Mueller investigation will not be allowed to finish."
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sessions' exit is "not a constitutional crisis."
Conway was asked if Trump had instructed Whitaker to limit the Russia investigation and said the "president hasn't instructed him to do anything" beyond serve as acting attorney general.
Later Thursday, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons announced they will try to force a vote next week on legislation to protect Mueller.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill in April. It would give special counsels a 10-day window to seek review of a firing.
The senators will ask for consent to vote on the bill, but any senator can object.
WHITAKER VS. ROSENSTEIN
Even after he arrived at the Justice Department, Whitaker harbored frustration about the length of the special counsel probe and doubts about the scope of Mueller's authority, a person familiar with the matter said. He questioned Rosenstein's ability to give Mueller such wide latitude and wanted to explore the bounds of what Mueller was examining, though Rosenstein kept Sessions' office "walled off" from the matter, this person said. Whitaker did, however, believe that Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself from the matter, the person said.
Rosenstein and Whitaker have come to eye each other warily in recent months, people familiar with the matter said. When Rosenstein was nearly ousted from his post over reports that he had suggested surreptitiously recording the president, Whitaker was tapped to take over Rosenstein's position. But after a visit to the White House, Rosenstein returned and stayed in his job, leaving people across the Justice Department -- Whitaker included -- mystified as to what happened, these people said.
Rosenstein and Whitaker both were present at the investiture of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday.
While Whitaker is now Mueller's ultimate supervisor, it was not immediately clear whether that meant Rosenstein would step aside. Justice Department officials said that under normal circumstances, the deputy attorney general would likely play an active, hands-on role in overseeing such a high-profile investigation, and they had no reason to believe that Rosenstein would now be cut out.
Whitaker was virtually unknown to Sessions before becoming his chief of staff, though Federalist Society Executive President Leonard Leo had been touting the former U.S. attorney from Iowa as early as the transition, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Leo had come to know Whitaker because both were prominent in conservative legal circles, and he considered Whitaker a true conservative and talented manager, this person said.
Initially, Sessions chose Jody Hunt, a longtime Justice Department official, to be the top aide in his office, while Whitaker made a name for himself in Washington via TV appearances and his work with the conservative Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
While liked by Sessions, Hunt clashed with Danielle Cutrona, another aide in the attorney general's office, in such a way that those around Sessions realized one or the other would have to move on, according to people familiar with the matter.
On Wednesday evening, Sessions gathered dozens of top Justice Department officials in the attorney general's conference room, according to a person familiar with the matter. He talked about loving the job and framed his removal as something that happens to every attorney general, the person said. He also said he thought Whitaker would carry the torch, the person said.
In a note sent to the Justice Department staff on Thursday, Sessions wrote, "No matter what your role at the Department and no matter what your task, I hope that you will remember that you are helping us in our mission to protect the American people and the rights we hold dear."
Information for this article was contributed by Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner of The Washington Post; and by staff members of The Associated Press.
A Section on 11/09/2018
Print Headline: People close to acting AG say he won't recuse