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Who Is Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker?

Nov 8, 2018
Originally published on November 8, 2018 5:41 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When President Donald Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions yesterday, he named Sessions' chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, acting attorney general. That puts Whitaker in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Democrats are already calling for Whitaker to recuse himself. But the former U.S. attorney who has a long history of involvement in Republican politics hasn't given any indication he plans to give an inch. NPR's Miles Parks has this profile.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Twenty-eight years ago, Matt Whitaker was starring for an Iowa Hawkeyes team headed for the Rose Bowl.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Into the end zone - touchdown. The Hawkeyes have rung another one as Matt Whitaker, the tight end, slips in.

PARKS: Now Whitaker's taking the spotlight in Washington as President Trump's pick to be the acting attorney general for the United States. He was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 to 2009. The first thing to understand about him is that he's a staunch conservative both in politics and his Christian faith. He worked on Rick Perry's presidential campaign in Iowa in 2012 and even ran in the Republican primary for the open Senate seat there in 2014.

BERIT BERGER: He has taken some incredibly extreme views on legal issues.

PARKS: That's Berit Berger, the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School.

BERGER: For example, he discusses that he approaches things - legal issues - you know, he wants to see them first from the Christian perspective and then from the constitutional perspective. That is not necessarily something we are used to hearing the attorney general say.

PARKS: But what Democrats say they are most worried about is Whitaker's views on special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. He's been an outspoken critic of the possibility that Mueller could be looking into President Trump's finances. Whitaker wrote a CNN op-ed titled "Mueller's Investigation Of Trump Is Going Too Far." In July of last year, he even laid out the groundwork for how a new attorney general could defang the Mueller investigation without firing the special counsel outright.

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MATT WHITAKER: I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment. And that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget so low that his investigation grinds to an absolute - almost a halt.

DON LEMON: To dwindle his resources.

WHITAKER: Right.

PARKS: For that reason, Democrats are calling for Whitaker to recuse himself from the Russia investigation just as Sessions did. Also, Whitaker previously worked on the Iowa campaign for Trump's presidential campaign staffer Sam Clovis, who's figured into the investigation. But Whitaker has given no indication he plans to give up control. His friends say he can balance his politics with the job he's been given. Chuck Larson is a former U.S. ambassador to Latvia, and he went to law school with Whitaker. He says politics won't play into his decision-making.

CHUCK LARSON: Matt is a lawyer's lawyer. He is not a politician who also has a law degree. He's a very skilled attorney. But he also has good political instincts, and he's pragmatic.

PARKS: But Iowa state Senator Matt McCoy has a different opinion. When Whitaker was U.S. attorney back in 2007, he indicted McCoy on account of fraud. McCoy's a Democrat and the first openly gay member of the Iowa Legislature. He says the charge was clearly politically motivated when you consider the outcome.

MATT MCCOY: After a nine-day trial, a jury of my peers in roughly 20 minutes came up with a unanimous not guilty verdict, and I was acquitted, fully acquitted. And so I know Matt Whitaker will misuse his office because I've seen it. And I know that he will misuse his power because he's done it.

PARKS: Roxanne Conlin, who served in the same position as Whitaker as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, said she was horrified when he was selected as acting attorney general.

ROXANNE CONLIN: I have every single confidence that politics will play a role in his service as acting attorney general.

PARKS: President Trump has not indicated whether Whitaker will be considered for the permanent job as U.S. attorney general. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.