President Donald Trump both defended and distanced himself from acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker during a Friday press conference, at one point lashing out at a CNN reporter who asked if Trump hoped Whitaker would limit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I don’t know Whitaker,” Trump said, adding that he heard Whitaker was “highly thought of” by US ambassador to China and former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
However, several reporters were quick to point out that Trump had met Whitaker multiple times in the Oval Office while Whitaker was former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff. When Sessions resigned on Wednesday, Trump installed Whitaker as Acting AG.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that not only does Whitaker not plan to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, but that he would block Mueller from subpoenaing Trump if the president does not agree to a sit-down interview.
“What a stupid question that is,” Trump responded to CNN reporter Abby Phillip when asked if he hoped Whitaker would “reign in” the Mueller probe. “You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
A number of legal scholars have questioned Whitaker’s validity as Acting AG, as well as his fitness to oversee the Mueller investigation given Whitaker’s long track record of publicly undermining the Mueller probe and claiming there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia before the investigation had concluded.
President Barack Obama’s former solicitor general Neal Katyal and conservative lawyer George Conway (husband to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway) argued in a New York Times op-ed that Whitaker’s appointment to Acting AG was unconstitutional because he was not confirmed by the Senate.
Trump responded to those criticisms by incorrectly claiming that Special Counsel Mueller had never been confirmed.
“Mueller was not Senate confirmed,” Trump claimed. “Whitaker was Senate confirmed … when he was the U.S. attorney from Iowa. Mueller … should’ve been Senate confirmed. But because of all the conflicts, they didn’t want to bring him before the Senate.”
Not only was Mueller confirmed by the Senate to the position of FBI Director twice during his career, but Mueller’s position of special counsel does not require Senate confirmation.
While Whitaker was confirmed by the Senate to the position of US Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, his position as Sessions’ chief of staff did not require Senate confirmation.