Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, in addition to being the man President Trump picked to put a stop to the investigation of the 2016 Russia scandal, is an entrepreneurial fellow. We’ve already learned about his involvement with a scam patent marketing company that was shut down by the feds after cheating customers out of $26 million.
And new information on Whitaker’s recent employment sheds light on an interesting corner of the political world, one where a guy like Whitaker can earn huge sums of money for doing very little — and in the process, it turns out, audition to become the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. You might even call it swampy.
Or you might call it “wingnut welfare,” a disparaging term that refers to a system wherein conservatives are granted well-remunerated sinecures from which they can advocate conservative ideas in the media while barely having to work. Is there a bit of jealousy in that term, used as it is by liberals who perhaps wish that more of their own donors would toss money around as freely as conservative donors do? Absolutely.
But Whitaker was employed by a particularly strange kind of Potemkin organization, created to give the appearance of legitimacy while having little real existence outside of a cable-news chyron underneath Whitaker’s name. And oh boy was it lucrative, as The Post reports:
In the three years after he arrived in Washington in 2014, Matthew G. Whitaker received more than $1.2 million as the leader of a charity that reported having no other employees, some of the best pay of his career.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust described itself as a new watchdog nonprofit dedicated to exposing unethical conduct by public officials. For Whitaker, it became a lucrative steppingstone in a swift rise from a modest law practice in Iowa to the nation’s top law enforcement job. As FACT’s president, he regularly appeared on radio and television, often to skewer liberals.
But FACT’s origins and the source of funding used to pay Whitaker — now the acting attorney general — remain obscured. An examination of state and federal records, and interviews with those involved, show that the group is part of a national network of nonprofits that often work in concert to amplify conservative messages.
FACT, which was created under a different name some years before taking on Whitaker, is an organization so mysterious that some of the people listed on its official documents barely seem to know it exists. One person listed as a director said he had forgotten about his involvement, but upon looking into it concluded, “The organization only existed on paper and didn’t do anything at all.” Another person listed as a director “said he was surprised to learn of his role,” explaining that the group’s founder approached him but he never agreed to be involved.
Because FACT is a 501(c)3 charitable organization, it doesn’t have to reveal its donors. But this all raises a tantalizing question: Just who would pay all this money to someone like Whitaker?
Let’s remember that Whitaker wasn’t particularly well-known before he was tapped to be Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff. He had been a U.S. attorney and mounted a weak Senate campaign in 2014, coming in fourth place with 7.5 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. It’s not like he had some kind of following that would make donors rush to open their wallets for him.
That isn’t to say, however, that whoever was donating all that money got nothing for it. Whitaker’s job seems to have consisted mostly of going on TV to amplify conservative messaging, on questions like whether Hillary Clinton was one of history’s greatest criminals and should be immediately prosecuted.
A job like that exists because cable news has an absolutely insatiable demand for people to come on the air and speak about whatever controversy or faux-controversy is occupying Washington’s attention at a given moment. If you’re demented enough to spend an entire day watching it, you’ll see a steady parade of talking heads coming on the air for five-minute “hits” about one issue or another, dozens and dozens of them. Because the networks need to find so many people to do this each and every day, genuine expertise is far less valuable than the ability to speak emphatically and authoritatively.
Whitaker had the kind of authority that cable news bookers prize, because of both his status as a former U.S. attorney and his position as president of an important-sounding organization. Viewers would never know that in truth it was little more than a mail drop.
Just to be clear, there’s nothing illegal about this, or even really unethical. I don’t doubt that when Whitaker went on TV all those times to attack Clinton or other Democrats, he was expressing his genuine beliefs. But someone who found a home in that particular part of the political world, where organizations hide behind their status as “charitable” groups while devoting themselves to obviously partisan PR, might not be the best choice to serve as America’s chief law enforcement officer.
But it was a perfect audition for Whitaker, and not just because Trump could see him on TV criticizing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Trump would also have seen someone advocating Republican interests while claiming devotion to abstract principles like integrity in government. Because Trump was looking for someone who would put the president’s interests above all else while claiming to care only about the fair administration of justice, Whitaker could demonstrate that he was just the man for the job.