Which way will Whittaker go?

Which way will Whittaker go?

by digby

This piece by Murray Waas at Vox suggests that Whittaker has been playing both sides since he came into the Justice Department:

Matthew Whitaker, whom President Donald Trump named as his acting attorney general on Wednesday, privately provided advice to the president last year on how the White House might be able to pressure the Justice Department to investigate the president’s political adversaries, Vox has learned.

Whitaker was an outspoken critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe before he became the chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in September 2017. That has rightfully raised concerns that Whitaker might now attempt to sabotage Mueller’s investigation. But new information suggests that Whitaker — while working for Sessions — advocated on behalf of, and attempted to facilitate, Trump’s desire to exploit the Justice Department and FBI to investigate the president’s enemies.

In May 2018, President Donald Trump demanded that the Justice Department open a criminal investigation into whether the FBI “infiltrated or surveilled” his presidential campaign and whether Obama administration officials were involved in this purported effort. Trump, his Republican allies in Congress, and conservative news organizations — most notably Fox News — were making such claims and amplifying those of others, even though they offered scant evidence, if any, that these allegations were true.

Sessions, Rosenstein, and other senior department officials believed that if they agreed to Trump’s wishes, doing so would constitute an improper politicization of the department that would set a dangerous precedent for Trump — or any future president — to exploit the powerful apparatus of the DOJ and FBI to investigate their political adversaries. Those efforts, in turn, coincided with the president’s campaign to undermine Mueller’s investigation into whether the president’s campaign aides, White House advisers, and members of his own family colluded with Russian to help Trump win the 2016 election.

During this period of time, Whitaker was the chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and in that role was advising Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on how to counter the president’s demands. But according to one former and one current administration official, Whitaker was simultaneously counseling the White House on how the president and his aides might successfully pressure Sessions and Rosenstein to give in to Trump’s demands.

Sources say that Whitaker presented himself as a sympathetic ear to both Sessions and Rosenstein — telling them he supported their efforts to prevent the president from politicizing the Justice Department. A person close to Whitaker suggested to me that the then-chief of staff was only attempting to diffuse the tension between the president and his attorney general and deputy attorney general, and facilitate an agreement between the two sides.

But two other people with firsthand information about the matter told me that Whitaker, in his conversations with the president, presented himself as a vigorous supporter of Trump’s position and “committed to extract as much as he could from the Justice Department on the president’s behalf.”

One administration official with knowledge of the matter told me: “Whitaker let it be known [in the White House] that he was on a team, and that was the president’s team.”

Whitaker’s open sympathizing with Trump’s frequent complaints about the Mueller investigation resulted in an unusually close relationship between a president and a staffer of his level. The president met with Whitaker in the White House, often in the Oval Office, at least 10 times, a former senior administration official told me. On most of those occasions, Sessions was also present, but it’s unclear if that was always the case.

During this period, Whitaker frequently spoke by phone with both Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly, this same official told me. On many of those phone calls, nobody else was on the phone except for the president and Whitaker, or only Kelly and Whitaker. As one senior law enforcement official told me, “Nobody else knew what was said on those calls except what Whitaker decided to tell others, and if he did, whether he was telling the truth. Who ever heard of a president barely speaking to his attorney general but on the phone constantly with a staff-level person?”

Despite this being the case, on Friday as he was leaving on a trip to Paris, Trump told reporters, “I don’t know Matt Whitaker.” He also claimed that he never spoke to the then-DOJ chief of staff about the Mueller investigation: “I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker about it,” he said.

Whitaker was a White House ally in building the case to investigate Hillary Clinton

Whitaker also counseled the president in private on how the White House might be able to pressure the Justice Department to name a special counsel to investigate not only allegations of FBI wrongdoing but also Hillary Clinton. Trump wanted the Justice Department to investigate the role that Clinton purportedly played, as secretary of state, in approving the Russian nuclear energy agency’s (Rosatom) purchase of a US uranium mining company.

The FBI had earlier investigated the allegations, concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, and closed out its investigation. Trump presented no new evidence to the Justice Department that would justify reopening the investigation, and thus senior Justice Department officials considered the president’s request to be a blatant attempt to improperly use the Department and FBI to discredit a political adversary.

Yet Whitaker suggested to the White House that he personally was sympathetic to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate these matters, according to the two officials with knowledge of the matter. A Justice Department official told me: “You have to have a predicate to open an investigation, or to reopen a closed case. You have an even higher one, an extraordinary threshold, to appoint a special counsel. If you don’t, what you are doing is unethical as a lawyer.”

A person close to Whitaker suggested that he did what so many others around Trump do, which is tell the president what he wants to hear: “With Sessions and Rod, [Whitaker] said he was on their side, and thought the appointment of a special counsel was ludicrous.”

CNN repoted that Sessions didn't Whittaker's backstab coming. Rosenstein seems like a savvy player who survived after Whittaker stabbed him in the back. (He's clearly one of the sources who fed that NYT story about "wearing a wire" to the NYT along with any number of others.)

Whittaker doesn't stike me as a hero or someone who is particularly bright. He's been run by Don McGahn, who is now out of the White House. I don't know who's pulling the strings now other than Trump. So it's doubtful he's going to be unpredictably independent now.

It's hard to imagine he will last or, if he does, that he will actually initiate a new investigation into Clinton. But then again, Donald Trump is president so anything can happen. And if they get desperate enough, and FOX News advises the president that he has to do it, I wouldn't be surprised to see it. I've always thought it was one of Trump's aces in the hole. Those "lock her up " chants tell him exactly how much his base would love it if he did it.