President Trump declined Thursday to deny that he was eyeing Matthew Whitaker as a replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And suddenly, Whitaker’s past skepticism about the Russia investigation has taken on new significance.
Whitaker’s Russia commentary first cropped up when he was reported to be a likely replacement for Sessions’s No. 2, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, a few weeks ago. Installing him as the No. 1, though, would give Whitaker even more power. It’s not clear he would take oversight of the Russia investigation, but there are other ways in which he could influence it.
One exchange in particular shows almost exactly what Whitaker thinks someone in such a position could do to rein in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Appearing on CNN in July 2017 — before he was in his current position as Sessions’s chief of staff — Whitaker mused about a scenario in which Trump might fire Sessions and replace him with a temporary attorney general. Whitaker noted that federal regulations still gave the attorney general power over the budget for a special counsel. That temporary replacement, he then said, could move to choke off Mueller’s funding.
“So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” Whitaker said, “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.”
It was the second time in the same interview that Whitaker brought up the defunding idea. He said Rosenstein could also be pressured to do it.
“I think what ultimately the president is going to start doing is putting pressure on Rod J. Rosenstein, who is in charge of this investigation, is acting attorney general, and really try to get Rod to maybe even cut the budget of Bob Mueller and do something a little more stage crafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker’s comments to CNN were flagged by a group called Law Works on Thursday.
The question from there is whether this is just something Whitaker thought Trump and a new attorney general might do, or whether it’s something he would advocate for and do. (A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.) Whitaker doesn’t explicitly say he would prefer this outcome, but it’s not difficult to see how Trump might see those comments and view Whitaker as a strong candidate to do his bidding.
Whitaker has made it clear he doesn’t particularly like how far Mueller has gone. He wrote an op-ed in August 2017 titled, “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far” that urged Rosenstein to “limit the scope of this investigation.”
“The President is absolutely correct,” Whitaker said after Trump suggested that Mueller investigating his finances would cross a red line. “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
He has also downplayed the idea that anything illegal was done at the Trump Tower meeting, saying, “You would always take the meeting."
Whether any of this will come to pass, we don’t know. We don’t even know how seriously Trump is eyeing Whitaker to replace Sessions. But after The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump had spoken with Whitaker about replacing Sessions, Trump demurred Thursday morning:
FOX NEWS’S STEVE DOOCY: In The Washington Post this morning, it says that you talked to the attorney general’s chief of staff about replacing the attorney general. Apparently, according to The Post, you talked to Matthew Whitaker, but the conversation was nebulous -- they depict it as. It wasn’t clear whether you wanted him to replace him on interim basis or he would be nominated on a more permanent basis. Anything to that story?
TRUMP: Well I never talk about it, but I can tell you Matt Whitaker is a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker, but I never talk about conversations that I had. But you know, The Washington Post gets it wrong a lot. That’s the only thing --
DOOCY: Yes, but the conversation is you are in active talks to replace the attorney general of the United States?
TRUMP: I’m not doing anything. I want to get the elections over with. We’ll see what happens.
That’s about as non-denial-y as you can get. And with Sessions apparently likely to be gone after the midterm elections in three and a half weeks, comments such as Whitaker’s could be hugely consequential.