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Furor over acting attorney general's role in Russia probe escalates

Top Democrats are seeking Matt Whitaker's "immediate recusal" from the investigation but Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway says the president is "100 percent behind" his choice.

Matthew Whitaker is President Donald Trump's new acting

Matthew Whitaker is President Donald Trump's new acting attorney general. He is shown in 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Charlie Neibergall

Furor over acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker's role in the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election escalated Sunday with Democrats calling for his recusal, while a top White House adviser said President Donald Trump stood "100 percent behind" his pick.

Top Democrats in the House and Senate wrote to the Justice Department's top ethics officer Sunday saying "there are serious ethical considerations that require Mr. Whitaker’s immediate recusal" from the investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N. Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and other Democratic lawmakers made the request in a letter published online Sunday to Lee J. Lofthus, assistant attorney general for administration, and the agency's designated ethics office.

In the letter, Democrats asked Lofthus if he had requested that Whitaker recuse himself from a supervisory role in the Russia probe, which is being led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. The letter cited Whitaker's "history of hostile statements" toward Mueller's investigation.

Uncertainty about the future of Mueller's investigation grew Wednesday after Trump forced out Jeff Sessions as attorney general and replaced him on an interim basis with Whitaker, who has publicly expressed skepticism with the probe.

Sessions had recused himself from any inquiries into Russian interference in March 2017, putting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of it. Rosenstein later named Mueller as special counsel.

Sessions' departure leaves Whitaker in charge as the Justice Department's top official.

Schumer said if that Whitaker does not recuse himself, he would attach legislation to the federal spending bill that would prevent Whitaker from interfering in Mueller's investigation.

"There's no reason we shouldn't add this and avoid a Constitutional crisis," Schumer said. "With Whitaker, there is every reason to believe there will be interference based on what Mr. Whitaker has said. The world has changed from when Rosenstein was in charge of the investigation."

Other Democratic lawmakers on Sunday expressed concerns about Whitaker's role.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Whitaker was "a complete political lackey" and "a real threat to the integrity" of Mueller's investigation.

"He should recuse himself because he has expressed total hostilities…to the investigation," Nadler said in a different interview on ABC's "This Week."  

Nadler said if Whitaker withholds a final report from Mueller, Congress could subpoena it or Mueller and "ask him in front of the committee what was in your final report."

If Whitaker is still acting attorney general when the new Congressional term begins, Nadler said he would "invite him, and if necessary...subpoena him to appear" before the Judiciary Committee, he said on ABC.

Questioned on "This Week" about whether the president asked Whitaker not to interfere with Mueller's investigation, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said: "I'm not aware of that. I doubt that he would do that, because it would just — it would prolong it."

Conway said she spoke to Trump Sunday morning, and he said: "'I'm 100 percent behind Matt Whitaker and he's never asked him to recuse — in fact, I've never heard the president mention Matt Whitaker and Bob Mueller in the same sentence in my presence."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Senate Judiciary Committee member, said on CBS' "Face The Nation," that he thought Whitaker "was appropriately appointed, legally. I don't think he has to recuse himself. I am confident the Mueller investigation will be allowed to come to a good, solid conclusion, that there will be no political influence put on Mr. Mueller by Mr. Whitaker to do anything other than Mr. Mueller's job."

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