President Trump on Friday sought to play down speculation that he had appointed Matthew G. Whitaker acting attorney general to curtail the special counsel investigation, telling reporters that he hasn’t spoken to him about the probe.
Trump took it a step further, saying, “I don’t know Matt Whitaker.” That claim was at odds with an interview a month ago on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” in which Trump said: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”
Trump spoke to reporters Friday as he left the White House en route to Paris. His comments came two days after Trump ousted Jeff Sessions as attorney general and installed Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff and a former U.S. attorney in Iowa, as the top official at the Justice Department.
The Washington Post reported this week that one of the reasons Trump liked Whitaker was because Whitaker had briefed him on many occasions. He did so because the president preferred not to talk to Sessions, whom he had often disparaged publicly.
Trump’s assessment of Whitaker on “Fox & Friends” last month came in response to a Post report that Trump had spoken to Whitaker about replacing Sessions. While Trump did not confirm the report at the time, he used the opportunity to praise Whitaker.
Trump has sought to distance himself from close associates once they fall out of favor or become embroiled in controversy. Trump, for example, sought to minimize the role played by his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort after he faced tax- and bank-fraud charges. Trump also sought to minimize the legal work done for him by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen as he faced federal charges.
Since stepping into his new role, Whitaker has faced questions — principally from Democrats — about whether he should recuse himself from overseeing the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference into the 2016 election, given that Whitaker had criticized the probe in opinion pieces and as a television commentator.
Whitaker’s appointment has also prompted questions from Democrats about whether Trump brought him aboard to curtail or shut down the Mueller investigation, which is examining possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia and potential obstruction of the probe by Trump.
Asked by a reporter whether he hired Whitaker to rein in the probe, Trump said: “What a stupid question.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment Friday on the president’s remarks about Whitaker.
While claiming not to know Whitaker, Trump praised him Friday as a “very strong person with a very strong personality,” saying that’s what the Justice Department needs at this point.
“Matthew Whitaker is a very smart man,” Trump said. “He is a very respected man in the law enforcement community . . . The choice was greeted with raves initially.”
In recent days, Whitaker has faced a great deal of scrutiny in the media, including for his service on the advisory board of an invention-promotion company accused of fraud by customers.
Trump also sought Friday to dismiss the notion that Whitaker should recuse himself of oversight of the Russia probe. Trump suggested he would have few choices for attorney general and other top government posts if he eliminated everyone who had been on television.
“Do we have to hire somebody in a shell? I don’t think so,” Trump said.
As a television commentator before taking the job with Sessions, Whitaker floated the idea of defunding the Mueller probe. He said it would cross a “red line” for Mueller to investigate the finances of the Trump Organization. And he said that it was “ridiculous” for Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to have appointed Mueller, as opposed to running the Russia investigation through regular Justice Department channels.
The Post reported Thursday that Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special-counsel probe, according to people close to him.
Trump also sought to brush off suggestions by some lawyers — including George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — that the Constitution requires Whitaker to be confirmed by the Senate before he starts serving.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also voiced concerns about the issue in a letter to Trump on Friday, writing: “I am not aware of any precedent for appointment of an official who has not been confirmed by the Senate to serve as Acting Attorney General.”
Schumer also asked Trump questions, including whether he had asked Whitaker for a pledge of loyalty.
Speaking to reporters, Trump claimed that Whitaker was “confirmed at the highest level” because his nomination to serve as a U.S. attorney in Iowa had been approved by the Senate.
Trump also complained that Mueller was not subject to Senate confirmation before he began serving a special counsel.
Asked about potential permanent replacements for Sessions, Trump said he likes former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) but has not spoken with him about the job.
Trump also repeated his frequent claim that the Mueller investigation is a “hoax.”
“There’s no collusion,” Trump said. “It’s a whole hoax.”
He said the reason he prevailed in the 2106 presidential election is that he was the better candidate and that Democrat Hillary Clinton “didn’t know what the hell she was doing.”