President Donald Trump on Friday claimed he has never discussed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible coordination with his campaign with acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.
“I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker” about the ongoing Justice Department probe before naming him to the post, Trump said.
It remains unclear whether the president knew about Whitaker’s past critical comments about the probe before he fired Jeff Sessions as the country’s top attorney and law enforcement official and replaced him, for now, with Sessions’ chief of staff.
Democratic lawmakers are warning that Trump’s removal of Sessions is a move against Mueller, and they say that would trigger a constitutional crisis.
Trump Says He Doesn’t Know Matt Whitaker
Should Trump consider the acting AG as his nominee to replace Sessions permanently, Whitaker’s Mueller probe views could hinder a potential nomination, since a few moderate Republican senators support allowing the special counsel to finish his work.
“It does not take a lawyer or even a former federal prosecutor like myself to conclude that investigating Donald Trump’s finances or his family’s finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else,” Whitaker wrote in a 2017 CNN op-ed.
“I don’t know Whitaker,” Trump claimed on the White House’s South Lawn as he left for a weekend visit to Paris for World War I Armistice Day commemoration festivities. But the Justice Department chief of staff had filled in for Sessions at high-level meetings, so Trump does have some familiarity with him. He did say Whitaker, who served as a U.S. attorney during the George W. Bush administration, is “highly thought of.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has clashed with Trump, had been overseeing Mueller’s work because Sessions recused himself. Rosenstein, who recently mended fences with the president, was passed over for the acting AG position and has given up day-to-day management of the special counsel probe. Several senior White House aides said Trump wants him to focus on the deputy’s typical role overseeing the department’s daily operations.
Trump appeared confused about Justice Department guidelines for establishing a special counsel, saying Mueller was not confirmed by the Senate because he had too many “conflicts.” He was confirmed by the body when he served as FBI director, however.
“This only comes up because anyone who works for me, they do a number on them,” Trump said of the media and his critics. “You didn’t have any problems with Matt Whitaker when he worked for Jeff Sessions.”
Trump said he “could have brought in somebody from the outside” to be acting AG, “but I didn’t want to do that.” Several times, he called Whitaker “a very strong personality — I think that’s what they need.”
The president downplayed the significance of Whitaker’s past remarks about the Mueller probe, saying many individuals who are qualified for such roles opine in the media. If that is a disqualifying thing, “you’d have nobody left to choose.”
Democratic lawmakers and some legal experts have called on Whitaker, based on the CNN op-ed and other media comments about the probe, to recuse himself like Sessions did. So far, the acting AG has shown no intention of doing so.
The president confirmed that outgoing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, mentioned as a potential AG nominee, was at the White House on Thursday. “But I didn’t speak to him,” Trump said.
Meanwhile, as Florida’s contested Senate race between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and GOP Gov. Rick Scott heads into a legal battle, Trump said there “could be” a federal role in a recount there.
After Scott on Thursday night accused Democrats of fraud and trying to steal the election, the GOP president said, “We won easily.”
Trump accused Broward County officials with “finding votes out of nowhere,” urging Floridians and Americans to “look at it very, very cautiously.”
The president also railed against CNN’s Jim Acosta two days after his White House press pass was confiscated following a verbal altercation with Trump during a news conference. And he called American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan “a loser” and “nasty” after she tried to ask a question that day without being called on. “You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect.”
Amid warnings from free press advocates to limit the banning of reporters to Acosta, Trump said this of how long the CNN reporter would be banned and about confiscating other journalists’ White House press passes: “I haven’t made that decision. But it could be others also.”
Trump fielded a few other questions before departing. Despite saying he would name a nominee to replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations before he left for Paris, Trump said he will pick a nominee “in the next couple of weeks.”
Asked about his vow to sign an executive order that would attempt to end birthright citizenship, he said it got delayed by other things but he still intends to do so. If and when that happens, an immediate legal challenge is expected.
Watch: With the Midterms Over, Get Ready for Investigation Nation and Congressional Gridlock