There’s not even a pretense that he’s in this role for any reason other than protecting Trump from Mueller, is there?
In fact, this NYT story claims that the White House’s first contact with him in July 2017 was to discuss “joining the president’s team as a legal attack dog against the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.” No wonder he ended up at the top of the DOJ. From the beginning Trump seems to have conceived of the position of Attorney General as head of his de facto legal defense team. Once Sessions declared that he wouldn’t play that part by recusing himself from Russiagate, his usefulness to Trump was over.
It’s funny that the White House thinks there’s some way to muzzle Mueller at this point, though, especially with the opposition party set to take over the House in eight weeks.
People close to Mr. Trump believe that he sent Mr. Whitaker to the department in part to limit the fallout from the Mueller investigation, one presidential adviser said.
White House aides and other people close to Mr. Trump anticipate that Mr. Whitaker will rein in any report summarizing Mr. Mueller’s investigation and will not allow the president to be subpoenaed.
He knew exactly how to appeal to the president: “By October of last year, Mr. Whitaker was telling people that he was working as a political commentator on CNN in order to get the attention of Mr. Trump, said John Q. Barrett, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law who met Mr. Whitaker during a television appearance last June.” His cable-news gig was a job tryout in the administration, chock full of soundbites that were skeptical of Mueller, not coincidentally. It worked like a charm.
That being so, it’s impossible to take the report floating around today that Whitaker won’t try to cut the special counsel’s budget as a sign that he plans a hands-off approach to the investigation. He came to Trump’s attention for his willingness to criticize Mueller, ultimately landing a role as Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff and now as acting Attorney General. After all that, how does this wild journey end with Whitaker standing aside and letting Russiagate proceed to the end unimpeded? It would be an even bigger betrayal of Trump’s expectations than Sessions’s recusal was.
But if the plan is for him to bottle up Mueller’s final report — which is submitted to the Attorney General, remember, and remains within the Attorney General’s discretion to releas — that’s not going to work. My pal Karl knows why:
On Earth 2, where Republicans retained control of the House, *maybe* Mueller would have maintained a sphinx-like silence after submitting his final report to acting AG Whitaker. The media would have begged for interviews but Mueller and his deputies have been a vault to this point (publicly, at least). On Earth, however, Mueller will be called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee, both in open and closed sessions. His core findings will leak. The actual report itself might leak, whether from anti-Trumpers at the DOJ or from House Democrats who’ve finagled a copy somehow. Having Whitaker try to formally suppress the release when the public is an uproar about seeing the contents would achieve nothing except underlining how deeply shady the Trump-Whitaker arrangement appears. It’d be smarter to have him release the report and then set Trump’s spin doctors to work making the case that, if anything, the contents largely/partially/somewhat vindicate the president. Why would they want to suppress something that makes him look good?
Whitaker blocking a subpoena of Trump from Mueller would backfire for all the same reasons. It would reek of cronyism; Democrats would expose it; it would inflame the public more than the subpoena itself would; and thus there are more politically astute ways to deal with it. Trump could go to court and try to have the subpoena defeated there, or he could state upfront that he’d assert his Fifth Amendment privilege if called to testify and therefore Mueller needn’t bother. “How could I submit to questioning in a witch hunt?” he’d say. “I’d be validating this garbage process!” All of his fans will side with him and any political hit he’d take among non-fans will fade by 2020, especially if Mueller’s final report doesn’t directly accuse him of anything.
I don’t think Whitaker will do anything to Mueller while in office. Even if he wants to, the bad headlines he’s generating for Trump likely mean they’ll push him out and propose a permanent nominee sooner rather than later. One more tidbit on Whitaker and his relationship with Sessions, this time from CNN:
In recent months, with his relationship with the President at a new low, Sessions skipped several so-called principals meetings that he was slated to attend as a key member of the Cabinet. A source close to Sessions says that neither the attorney general nor Trump thought it was a good idea for Sessions to be at the White House, so he sent surrogates. Whitaker was one of them.
But Sessions did not realize Whitaker was having conversations with the White House about his future until the news broke in late September about Rosenstein…
Whitaker and Sessions didn’t have a prior relationship before Sessions — at the urging of the White House — accepted Whitaker as his chief of staff. Sessions interviewed him and the two grew to have a good working relationship. Sessions liked him, but even if he didn’t, the plan was already hatched for him to take the role, according to one source familiar with the matter.
Let me get this straight. Whitaker spends months on CNN in 2017 criticizing Mueller; then, coincidentally, the White House pushes him on Sessions as his new right-hand man; and not until September did Sessions have an inkling that maybe Whitaker had been working against him? Trump probably wanted him as Sessions’s chief of staff to begin with so that he could serve as the White House’s eyes and ears on Russiagate inside the DOJ. Plus, having Whitaker as a DOJ employee made it easy to satisfy the Vacancies Reform Act in the event of a vacancy at the top of the Department. Remember, under the statute the only way to bypass Senate confirmation for a temporary appointee to a position like AG is to choose someone within the upper ranks of the same agency where the vacancy opened up. That is, if Trump wanted a handpicked (temporary) successor to Sessions and didn’t want to worry about the Senate, he needed that person installed in a top job at the DOJ first. And whaddaya know? Whitaker was appointed chief of staff to Sessions last year. Trump’s probably quietly been eyeing him for this moment for many months. You would think he’d have asked to someone to research Whitaker for any political vulnerabilities during that time, but oh well.