Matt Whitaker, appearing on CNN. Credit: Screen grab from YouTube
In August 2017, Matthew Whitaker wrote an op-ed for CNN titled “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far,” in which he argued President Donald Trump was “absolutely correct” when he said the special counsel would be crossing the line if he probed the Trump family’s finances as part of the Russia investigation.
Whitaker is now in line to oversee Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump and those in his orbit. Trump, forcing out U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, named Whitaker the acting attorney general. Sessions, a top Trump campaign adviser, had recused from the Mueller investigation.
Whitaker most recently had been serving as chief of staff to Sessions, formerly a Republican senator from Alabama and a U.S. attorney. The ousting of Sessions capped a tumultuous relationship between the attorney general and president, who regularly—and very publicly—pilloried the top lawyer at Main Justice.
The Trump administration had previously considered naming Whitaker as acting deputy attorney general when Rod Rosenstein, also embattled, nearly resigned from his post in September. Whitaker has served as Sessions’ chief of staff since October 2017, taking over the role after Jody Hunt was nominated to head up the Justice Department’s Civil Division.
There's no certainty that Whitaker will be at the helm of Main Justice for the remainder of Trump's time in office. Still, at least in the near term, Whitaker is a central figure in the Trump administration whose every move, and remark, will be scrutinized. Here are six things to know about Whitaker, his career in the law and life in Iowa.
>> Whitaker, previously a CNN commentator, has often appeared on cable discussing the special counsel probe he could soon oversee. In one July 2017 appearance, he weighed in on the president’s tweets railing against Sessions. “It’s clear the president is trying to put enough pressure on Jeff Sessions so that Jeff does what the president, I believe, would think would be honorable, and that is resign,” he said, “and I don’t think Jeff Sessions who is currently in his dream job as attorney general is going to do that.” He added: “And really, I think what ultimately the president is going to start doing is putting pressure on Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of this investigation and is acting attorney general and really try to get Rod to maybe even cut the budget of Bob Mueller and do something a little more stage crafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him.”
>> Whitaker has politics in his veins. He unsuccessfully ran for an Iowa-based U.S. Senate seat in 2014. "Whitaker has described himself as '100 percent pro life,' as an opponent of 'amnesty' for undocumented immigrants, and a supporter of Medicare reform and a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution," according to a Des Moines Register profile. At a campaign event in 2014 in Iowa, he railed on the Affordable Care Act. "Ronald Reagan said it best: It is as true as a law of physics, that as government expands, freedom must and does recede. Right now, our freedom is under assault from an ever-growing federal government. We need freedom from Obamacare, a regulation that is crushing small businesses—a statute that is taking away your freedom to keep your doctor, freedom to keep your plan, and your freedom to choose the coverage that you want." Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday: "I look forward to working with Matt Whitaker as he takes the helm of the Justice Department. A fellow Iowan, who I’ve known for many years, Matt will work hard and make us proud. The Justice Department is in good hands during this time of transition.”
>> While in private practice at Whitaker Hagenow & Gusstoff, Whitaker was on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing. In May 2018, months after Whitaker joined the Justice Department, the invention promotion firm reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that it deceived consumers and suppressed complaints using threats and gag clauses. The FTC alleged that consumers paid World Patent Marketing thousands of dollars to patent and market their inventions based on bogus “success stories” and testimonials. The agency said World Patent Marketing and an affiliated firm “did not deliver what they promised, and many people ended up in debt or lost their life savings with nothing to show for it.” When he extended his term on World Patent Marketing’s advisory board in 2014, Whitaker said: "As a former U.S. attorney, I would only align myself with a first-class organization. World Patent Marketing goes beyond making statements about doing business 'ethically' and translates them into action." Whitaker said in 2015 that in private practice he worked on criminal defense, business disputes and estate planning. "I enjoy helping people find solutions to some very complex problems," he said in an interview then. "I strive to make people's lives better through my work in public policy."
>> Whitaker was former executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, the conservative nonprofit watchdog that describes itself as “dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government and civic arenas by hanging a lantern over public officials who put their own interests over the interests of the public good.” Under his tenure, the group accused the Democratic National Committee of receiving illegal campaign contributions from the Ukrainian government and called for investigations into several Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, John Lewis and former Rep. Keith Ellison. Whitaker called for U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro to recuse himself from the House’s Russia investigation, saying the Texas Democrat’s public comments suggested he had predetermined the probe’s outcome. "Congressman Castro's highly charged, partisan remarks were irresponsible and a clear indication that he can no longer look into the Russia situation with any degree of partiality," Whitaker said. "If Representative Castro and his colleagues are going to throw stones from a glass house when it comes to Member recusal, then for the integrity of our system of government and justice, he should do the right thing and step aside immediately."
President Donald J. Trump disembarks Air Force One at Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, Wisconsin, Oct. 24, 2018. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
>> He and the president appear to see eye-to-eye on the question of whether Hillary Clinton should have been criminally charged. In a 2016 op-ed for USA Today, titled “I would indict Hillary Clinton: Opposing View," Whitaker said he disagreed with then-FBI Director James Comey’s assessment that “no reasonable prosecutor” would have brought a case against the former secretary of state over her use of personal email. “I disagree. I believe myself to have been a reasonable prosecutor, and when the facts and evidence show a criminal violation has been committed, the individuals involved should not dictate whether the case is prosecuted,” Whitaker wrote.
>> Whitaker has deep Iowa roots—and let's talk football. He served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa in the latter half of the George W. Bush administration. According to the Des Moines Register, he was the starting tight end in the 1991 Rose Bowl for the Iowa Hawkeyes. "Whitaker joined the Hawkeyes after a standout prep career at Ankeny High School. He was an All-State football player, and was eventually inducted into the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame," according to a report at Hawkeye Nation.
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Matt Whitaker, appearing on CNN. Credit: Screen grab from YouTube