Chief of Staff to the Attorney General Matthew Whitaker attends a roundtable discussion with foreign liaison officers at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Allison Shelley/File Photo
Matthew Whitaker, the attorney general’s chief of staff, jockeyed over the last two months to replace his boss by forging a close relationship with the White House, where he was seen as a reliable political ally. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump fired Jeff Sessions and named Whitaker acting attorney general, rewarding his loyalty.
Inside the Justice Department, senior officials, including Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, have viewed Whitaker with intense suspicion. Before his current job at the Justice Department, Whitaker, a former college football tight end, was openly hostile on television and social media toward the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and was seen by department officials as a partisan and a White House spy.
The special counsel is leading the investigation into whether any of Trump’s associates conspired with Russia during 2016 election and whether the president tried to obstruct the inquiry. Now Whitaker will oversee Mueller’s investigation, prompting concerns that he could move swiftly to shut it down or hobble it, despite serious questions about his own potential conflicts in supervising it.
In August 2017, Whitaker highlighted on Twitter a Philly.com opinion article with the headline “Note to Trump’s Lawyer: Do Not Cooperate With Mueller Lynch Mob.” In his tweet, Whitaker wrote that it was “worth a read.”
The same day, as a legal commentator for CNN, he wrote an opinion article for the cable network’s website with the headline “Mueller’s Investigation of Trump Is Going Too Far.” He called on Rosenstein to “order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation.”
In another tweet that same summer, Whitaker argued against legislation that would protect Mueller’s investigation and accused the FBI of intimidation tactics when agents raided the house of Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman. Manafort was prosecuted by Mueller’s team and later convicted of federal charges.
Whitaker and Trump also share similar views on what they consider the need for a special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The FBI investigated but closed the case without bringing charges in 2016. Sessions rebuffed calls for another special counsel.
“Whitaker’s appointment raises blaring alarms about the acceleration of obstruction of justice and a fundamental attack on the rule of law in our country,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “Congress must act right now to protect the special counsel’s investigation.”
People close to the president said Whitaker first came to the attention of Trump because he liked watching Whitaker express skepticism about aspects of Mueller’s investigation on television.
In August 2017, Whitaker appeared on CNN and said that if Mueller began investigating the Trump Organization, “I think that would be crossing the red line.”
In a CNN interview the month before, Whitaker offered a situation in which Trump could try to hobble Mueller’s investigation behind the scenes by pressuring the Justice Department to cut the special counsel’s budget.
He said that situation was “a little more stage-crafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him.”
The burley Whitaker, 49, whose Twitter profile shows him lifting heavy weights, played football for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. He started in the 1991 Rose Bowl, where he caught a touchdown pass on a faked field goal. He graduated in 1992 and had once considered moving to Hollywood to make his fortune.
Instead he attended the University of Iowa College of Law. In 2004, he was appointed to be U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, a position he held until 2009. He then ran for Senate in 2014, when he campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act.
After losing the Republican primary to Sen. Joni Ernst, Whitaker became executive director of the conservative Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, known as FACT. The organization called itself a watchdog group and mainly made accusations of ethical or legal violations against Democratic politicians, including Clinton.
During Whitaker’s tenure, the group called for investigations into, among others, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., as well as Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio.
When President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court, Whitaker’s group demanded that Harvard University release records related to Garland’s position in debates there as an undergraduate in 1973 over whether to allow ROTC recruiters on campus.
“We believe Americans have a right to know about Garland’s views of the military,” Whitaker wrote, according to The Washington Times.
Whitaker has been open about linking religion with legal judgments. In 2014, while running for the Senate in Iowa, Whitaker said in a debate that he wanted to examine the “worldview” of judges or potential judges: “Are they people of faith? Do they have a biblical view of justice?”
“If they have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on Earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about that judge,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker has been focused on Clinton for years, and denounced her publicly in his role as executive director of FACT. In March 2016, he wrote an op-ed article for The Hill that argued that Obama administration officials needed to appoint a special counsel to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server while working as secretary of state.
“Perhaps the need for special counsel would not be as clear and urgent without the troubling track record Clinton has had with the truth in this matter,” he wrote.
In May 2017, Whitaker wrote an op-ed for The Hill in which he praised Trump’s decision to fire James Comey, the FBI director. He said he disagreed with Comey’s assessment that “no reasonable prosecutor” would have brought a criminal case against Clinton.
It is not clear whether the president intends to nominate Whitaker to be the next attorney general, or whether he will choose someone of greater stature and experience. But Whitaker has the support of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Grassley supported Whitaker to be appointed U.S. attorney in Iowa in 2004 and was pleased with the decision on Wednesday to name him acting attorney general.
“I look forward to working with Matt Whitaker as he takes the helm of the Justice Department,” Grassley said in a statement. “A fellow Iowan, who I’ve known for many years, Matt will work hard and make us proud. The Justice Department is in good hands during this time of transition.”
It is likely that Whitaker will be in the position until at least early next year because the Senate legislative calender would make it nearly impossible to confirm a new attorney general before the current term ends in December.
Whitaker’s rise comes after a New York Times article disclosed in September that Rosenstein had discussed secretly taping his conversations with the president and talked about using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
After the report, Rosenstein offered to resign and Whitaker was expected to take over as the acting deputy attorney general because White House advisers had told him it would happen.
On Wednesday, Trump passed over Rosenstein, his confirmed deputy attorney general, for Whitaker, a department staffer.