President Donald Trump defended his decision to name Matt Whitaker as ‘acting attorney general’ with oversight over the Robert Mueller probe – and says the two men never discussed the topic.
‘I don’t know Whitaker,’ Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House as he headed to Paris.
He called Whitaker as ‘highly thought of’ but denied ever taking his pulse over the Russia probe – which he now will oversee following Trump’s decision to force out attorney general Jeff Sessions and sideline oversight that had been given by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
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‘I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker’ about the Mueller probe, President Trump said
‘I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker about it. I don’t know Matt Whitaker. Matt Whitaker has a great reputation and that’s what I wanted,’ Trump said.
Trump plucked Whitaker from his post as chief of staff for Jeff Sessions.
‘When Sessions left what I did very simply is take a man who worked for Sessions,’ Trump said.
‘I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker’ about the Mueller probe,’ Trump said.
When a reporter asked he if wanted Whitaker to rein in Mueller, he called it a ‘stupid question.’ Whitaker has spoken publicly about the need to rein in Mueller, and skeptics have called it the sole purpose of his appointment.
President Donald Trump talks to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington
Trump also pushed back at complaints from Democrats and conservative legal scholars that it is illegal and unconstitutional for Whitaker to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement officer since he was not confirmed by the Senate to any Justice Department post.
‘He was confirmed at the highest level,’ Trump said, pointing to his confirmation back in 2004 to be a federal prosecutor in Iowa.
That is a relatively junior post – there are 93 US attorneys, and it happened 14 years ago.
LOYALIST: Former Sessions chief of staff Matt Whitaker has taken over oversight of the Russia probe. He has criticized it in the past and spoken about cutting its funding. He was not confirmed by the Senate for his post
President Donald Trump, left, appears with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the FBI National Academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va. in 2017
Trump noted that Mueller was not confirmed by the Senate either, ‘so don’t talk to me about Whitaker.’ However, Mueller does report to Senate confirmed appointees – he has previously been reporting to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who was confirmed by the Senate.
Trump also claimed that the Republican-run Senate didn’t confirm Mueller because of conflicts of interest. He didn’t state what those were, but in the past the White House has pointed to a dispute over fees at a Trump Virginia golf course that Mueller used to belong to.
‘I don’t know Matt Whitaker,’ Trump said of the new acting attorney general he named who has gained control of the Russia probe
‘Mueller was not Senate confirmed. Why didn’t they get him Senate confirmed? He should have been Senate confirmed. But because of all the conflicts, they didn’t want to bring him before the Senate … Because he was very conflicted. So because of those conflicts, they didn’t want to bring him before the Senate,’ Trump said.
The fight over the validity of the appointment comes as Democrats howl the chess moves are part of a plan by Trump to seize control of the Mueller probe.
Whitaker has brushed off the significance of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians. ‘You would always take that meeting,’ he said. He called an article about the ‘Mueller lynch mob’ – words that were in the headline – ‘worth a read.’ He also said there was ‘not collusion’ between the Trump campaign and Russians.
Trump also said that although ‘I like’ former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, he hasn’t spoken to him about being a candidate to replace Sessions.
Democratic attorneys general for 17 states and Washington, D.C. wrote Whitaker Thursday demanding he recuse himself from the Russia probe – something Sessions had done, which infuriated President Trump.
George Conway III, a prominent lawyer, penned an op-ed in the New York Times along with former solicitor general Neal Katyal, arguing that Trump’s power play at the Justice Department is ‘unconstitutional.’
Whitaker has spoken critically about the Mueller probe and spoke in a TV interview about choking off its funding.
He also was not confirmed by the Senate, since he does not hold one of the top posts that meet this bar. According to Conway, this come in violation of the Constitution’s appointments clause.
‘Mr. Whitaker’s installation makes a mockery of our Constitution and our founders’ ideals,’ the men wrote.
‘President Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional,’ they wrote. ‘It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.