President Trump knows Matthew G. Whitaker, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday, two days after the president sought to distance himself from his handpicked acting attorney general.
Trump last week forced Jeff Sessions to resign as attorney general and chose Whitaker, who was then Sessions’s chief of staff, to serve as his interim replacement. In the days since, Whitaker’s background and previous critical statements about the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III have come under intense scrutiny, with Democrats and some Republicans calling for him to recuse himself from oversight of the probe.
Trump on Friday repeatedly claimed that he did not personally know Whitaker, telling reporters, “I don’t know Whitaker.” That contradicted Trump’s statement last month in a Fox News interview, during which the president said, “I know Matt Whitaker.”
Conway said Sunday that Trump was trying to make the point Friday that in selecting Whitaker for the acting attorney general job, he wasn’t appointing “a friend there who he’s known his entire life.”
She added that it wasn’t clear whether Whitaker had been briefed on the Mueller probe.
“He’s been the chief of staff to a recused attorney general,” she said.
Trump had been aware before appointing him that Whitaker was a skeptic of the Mueller probe, which factored into the decision to tap him over Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, two White House advisers told The Washington Post.
Speaking on ABC News’s “This Week,” Conway said the president chose Whitaker because he wanted to “have a continuum” when it comes to people serving in the attorney general role. She added that the Trump administration had been “compliant” with the investigation and that she “can’t really blame” the president “if he doesn’t” meet with Mueller.
Trump’s legal team in August rejected Mueller’s conditions for a sit-down interview, although Trump said Friday that he has not ruled out an interview with the special counsel.
Asked about the op-ed co-written by her husband, lawyer George T. Conway III, in which he argued that Whitaker’s appointment was unconstitutional, she said: “Spouses disagree.”
In an appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) also defended Trump’s appointment of Whitaker, describing the acting attorney general as “legally qualified and otherwise qualified to oversee this investigation.”
“I’m confident that Mr. Mueller will be allowed to do his job without interference,” Graham said, adding: “You don’t recuse somebody because they have opinions different than the people they’re overseeing.”
Frances Stead Sellers contributed to this report.