Key Senate Republican downplays concerns over Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley on Tuesday downplayed concerns raised by Democrats on multiple fron...

Posted: Nov 14, 2018 5:58 AM
Updated: Nov 14, 2018 5:58 AM

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley on Tuesday downplayed concerns raised by Democrats on multiple fronts about conflicts of interest involving acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker or that Whitaker might interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Grassley and other senior Republicans said they were confident Whitaker would get clearance from ethics officials at the Justice Department, and they rebuffed Democratic calls for hauling Whitaker up to Capitol Hill to testify.

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"I heard over TV or radio that Whitaker is going to ask the ethics people whether he should be recused. I think that answers it," the Iowa Republican said. "Doesn't matter what the Democrats think. If he is going through that process that's going to answer that question."

Asked if Whitaker, who met recently with Grassley, provided assurances he would not interfere in the Mueller investigation, Grassley said President Donald Trump has made that assurance and that's what matters.

"It seems to me that the President is the chief executive and the President said that he wasn't going to do that," Grassley said. "Doesn't matter what Whitaker thinks. The President said it isn't going to be done."

Grassley's backing comes as Democrats have demanded that Whitaker recuse himself in the Mueller probe over his past comments criticizing the investigation -- and newly empowered House Democrats have signaled they will investigate Jeff Sessions' firing and Whitaker's appointment when they take power in January.

Democrats and others have also argued that Whitaker's appointment may not be lawful because he was never confirmed by the Senate. Maryland's Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a court challenge Tuesday to replace Whitaker with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as acting attorney general.

"No matter what the Trump Justice Department says, there is no acceptable justification for this appointment," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. "Even conservative justices on the Supreme Court have essentially made that argument."

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent Grassley two letters calling for hearings with Whitaker and Sessions. "The circumstances surrounding Attorney General Sessions' departure raise serious questions, including whether the appointment is lawful and the possible impact on Special Counsel Mueller's investigation," Feinstein wrote.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said he hopes "Whitaker's time as acting AG is extraordinarily brief," calling on the President to pick a well-qualified candidate sooner rather than later.

Grassley said a hearing with Whitaker was "under consideration," and he hadn't made a decision yet. But the Iowa Republican also noted he was not concerned about past remarks from Whitaker that were critical of the Mueller investigation.

"As long as he made them as a private citizen, no," Grassley said.

Other Republicans on the Judiciary panel said Whitaker should not testify.

"I don't see an advantage to doing that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, adding that Democrats would likely try "to smear him -- there may be some who may like to do that."

Hatch told CNN that he's not concerned that Whitaker will act improperly with the Mueller probe. "Anybody who acts improperly will find themselves on the front page and not be in very good shape," he said. "He's going to be in a very tough position and people are going to watch him very carefully."

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told CNN that he hadn't yet spoken to Whitaker, and said it "would be a mistake" for him to interfere with the Mueller probe. But Cornyn added: "I think Director Mueller needs to wrap this thing up. He needs to finish his job. This thing has been hanging out there for a long time. Certainly I would think he's got virtually all the information he needs in order to make a decision and write a report."

Cornyn added he was not interested in the attorney general job.

Push for bill to protect Mueller

Democrats and a handful of Republicans are renewing a push for legislation to protect Mueller in the wake of Whitaker's appointment.

Leahy said he wanted stand-alone legislation, asserting that many Republicans privately agree that Whitaker might try to shape the Russia investigation.

The special counsel legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in the spring, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear he doesn't intend to bring it to the floor for a vote, a position the Kentucky Republican reiterated last week in the wake of Sessions' firing.

Sen. Jeff Flake, the retiring Arizona Republican senator, tweeted that he would seek unanimous consent to vote on the bill on the Senate floor this week. But that effort is likely to be objected to, stopping it from going anywhere.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats would also try to attach legislation protecting the special counsel to the must-pass spending bill that Congress needs to pass during the lame-duck session. Schumer also said that Congress wanted to be notified of the results of Whitaker's meetings with ethics officials.

"Mr. Whitaker has prejudged the outcome of an investigation he now oversees," Schumer said.

Grassley, who helped broker a compromise on the legislation in the committee, said he supports the Mueller bill, but deferred to McConnell about moving it to the full Senate.

"The answer is, if it comes for a vote, I will vote for that bill. Whether it comes to a vote is up to the leader and I'm going to respect the leader's right to bring it up," he said.

Finally, Grassley said he will have an answer "in a few days" on whether he will remain chairman of the Judiciary Committee or move over to be chair of the Finance Committee, something that would be available to him with Hatch retiring.

He said he needs to consult his GOP colleagues before deciding.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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