President Trump took to Twitter to announce the appointment of an acting Attorney General, and then fired Jeff Sessions in the following tweet.
WASHINGTON — Matthew Whitaker, a former football player in Iowa who rose there to become a federal prosecutor and chief of staff at the Justice Department, was named Wednesday as acting attorney general.
President Donald Trump fired Whitaker’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, and immediately named Whitaker as a caretaker until he finds a permanent nominee.
Trump had considered Whitaker for a variety of jobs, including the No. 2 post at Justice or as White House counsel. Whitaker had served as Sessions’ chief of staff since October 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a probe Trump has called a “witch hunt.”
“I find the timing very suspect, No. 1,” Schumer said. “But, No. 2, our paramount view is that any attorney general, whether this one or another one, should not be able to interfere with the Mueller investigation in any way.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who is likely to become head of the Judiciary Committee as Democrats gain control of the House next year, said “it would be wholly inappropriate for Mr. Whitaker to supervise the special counsel investigation given his documented history of opposition to it.” Nadler said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should continue to oversee Mueller.
“The American people understand that no person is above the law and have demanded accountability from their government,” Nadler said.
Whitaker wrote a column for CNN in August 2017, that said Trump was right to question Mueller looking at the finances of the Trump Organization or the president’s family.
“The President is absolutely correct,” Whitaker wrote. “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
Whitaker also wrote a column for USA TODAY on July 5, 2016, that said he would have indicted Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president that year, for handling classified documents as secretary of State on a private email server.
“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 ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in Iowa in 2014, in a race ultimately won by Sen. Joni Ernst. He earlier campaigned unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2002.
Between 2014 and 2017, Whitaker was executive director of a conservative watchdog group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, based in Washington, D.C. He was also a legal commentator on CNN for four months in 2017 before joining the Justice Department.
From 2004 to 2009, Whitaker served as President George W. Bush’s U.S. attorney for the southern district of Iowa. In that post, he served on the attorney general’s advisory subcommittees on controlled substances and asset forfeiture, and was a member of the white-collar crime and violent and organized crime. He also worked in private practice in Iowa and Minnesota.
George Terwilliger, a former U.S. attorney and deputy attorney general who is now a partner at McGuire Woods, said he heard about Whitaker when he served as a good U.S. attorney in Iowa.
“It was obvious to me that he has that unique combination of political and legal skills that are necessary to operate at that level,” Terwilliger told USA TODAY.
As chief of staff, Whitaker would have dealt daily for the complex, difficult issues facing the attorney general, Terwilliger said.
“I see the chief of staff role as more than just keeping things running,” Terwilliger said. “It’s also making substantive choices about what is important to bring to the AG or other staff members or subordinates, to make sure that issues get the kind of attention from the experts that they need.”
Whitaker earned his undergraduate degree in communications from the University of Iowa in 1991 and a law degree and MBA from the school in 1995. He played tight end for the Hawkeyes in the 1991 Rose Bowl and was named an Academic All American in 1992 and winning the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1993.
In a television ad for the Senate race, he said that Coach Hayden Fry “taught us to always fight for Iowa.”
“As your U.S. attorney, I protected Iowans, putting thugs and predators behind bars and as your senator, when it comes to standing up to Barack Obama, I won’t waver,” Whitaker said in the ad. “You can trust me to fight for Iowa.”
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