Attorney General Jeff Sessions is out. President Donald Trump has just named Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general to replace him — giving a man who once suggested special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was a “witch hunt” control of the fate of the probe.
Whitaker served as Sessions’s chief of staff — one of the most powerful positions at the Justice Department. And while the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, would typically be tapped to take over in an acting role, Trump chose Whitaker instead.
Even though he will be serving in an acting capacity, Whitaker is now expected to oversee the Mueller probe, so long as he doesn’t have any conflicts that would force him to recuse himself. He will likely have the power to let Mueller keep doing what he’s doing — or curtail or shut down the investigation altogether.
We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
Whitaker’s name first cropped up in September as a potential acting replacement for Rosenstein, who appeared to be on the verge of getting fired himself.
Whitaker seemed like a curious choice at the time. Trump has repeatedly and publicly chastised Sessions, mostly for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. Putting a Sessions ally in the second most powerful position at the Justice Department, then, seemed odd.
The question now is why would Trump tap him to take over temporarily for Sessions. The answer could lie in Whitaker’s past criticism of the Mueller probe and one of the president’s favorite foils: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Why Trump may have chosen Whitaker
Whitaker, a former US attorney from Iowa, is the White House’s “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, according to the New York Times. He’s also a fiscal and social conservative who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2014. He aligns with Trump (and Sessions) when it comes to issues like crime and immigration, but Whitaker comes with the added perk (for Trump) of publicly expressing some displeasure about the Mueller investigation.
In August 2017 as a CNN commentator, Whitaker blasted Mueller’s investigation.
“Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing,” Whitaker wrote. “If he were to continue to investigate the [Trump family’s] financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.”
Though there was little public sign that Rosenstein declined any significant Mueller request, Whitaker argued that Rosenstein had to limit the scope of Mueller’s probe — the very investigation Whitaker is poised to inherit.
But Whitaker has also publicly lambasted Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and Trump’s former election opponent.
As the head of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a right-leaning organization that criticizes Democrats on ethics matters, he said in May 2017 that Clinton should be “extremely grateful” she wasn’t prosecuted for having a private email server. Three months later, he wrote in the Hill that Clinton’s connections to Ukraine were “worth exploring.”
So it’s possible Whitaker’s time in the Justice Department isn’t what put him on the White House’s radar — but rather his time saying things that Trump himself agrees with.