WASHINGTON — Now that Jeff Sessions has departed the Justice Department, oversight over the probe into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign has been placed in the hands of one of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s critics: Matthew Whitaker.
Whitaker has a history of media appearances in which he has weighed in extensively on Mueller, going so far as to suggest steps an attorney general could take to negate his influence — including a scheme to essentially dry the investigation by denying it funds.
The series of statements has lead many of President Donald Trump’s critics to issue calls for Whitaker to recuse himself from Mueller’s probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
“Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from its oversight for the duration of his time as acting attorney general,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Wednesday.
At an impromptu news conference shortly after Sessions submitted his resignation, Schumer said: “Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount. It would create a constitutional crisis if this were a prelude to ending or greatly limiting the Mueller investigation.”
But White House aide Kellyanne Conway on Thursday played down concerns that Whitaker’s appointment was a means to hinder Mueller.
“It’s not a Constitutional crisis,” Conway told reporters outside the West Wing. “The president hasn’t instructed him to do anything other than be acting attorney general.”
She declined to specifically address if Whitaker and the president had broached the topic, but implied that it would not make sense for the president to do so since it would likely only prolong the investigation.
During a press conference Trump held on Wednesday shortly before announcing Sessions’ departure on Twitter, the president avoided ruling out Mueller’s dismissal but said that he has the authority to do so.
“I could have ended it anytime I wanted,” Trump said. “I didn’t.”
However, the prospect of Whitaker actually following through on his critiques of the probe have left at least some conservatives hopeful.
Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, heralded Whitaker’s appointment as an opportunity.
“Now that President Trump has removed AG Sessions and appointed Mr. [Whitaker] as Acting Attorney General, I hope the new DOJ leadership ends the abusive Mueller investigation and finally does a serious prosecution of Clinton’s email crimes and other misconduct,” Fitton said in a statement.
While it is unclear is if Whitaker will take any steps against Mueller, particularly while he fills an interim position. Some critics have expressed doubts over whether Whitaker is in the position legally at all.
In a New York Times op-ed, attorneys Neal Katyal and George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, take issue with Whitaker being chosen to lead the department over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom the Senate had previously confirmed.
The move, they argue, violates the Constitution’s Appointment Clause, which states that primary officers must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
“It means that President Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional,” they write. “It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.”
Regardless of the legal argument, Whitaker was seen on the job Thursday.
The acting attorney general appeared at an investiture ceremony for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and formally introduced the administration’s commission to elevate Kavanaugh.
The commission, which a clerk in the court read aloud, made a passing reference to Sessions, who had signed the document along with the president early last month.