Special counsel Robert Mueller's team has begun writing its final report on the Russia investigation that he took over 18 months ago, CNN reported. Even as he dropped the ax on Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump was reviewing his answers to Mueller's written questions.
What's not clear is whether Mueller will be able to get past last-minute roadblocks put in his way by Matthew Whitaker, the new acting attorney general.
Whitaker has already signaled to associates that he has no intention of recusing himself from oversight of Mueller, The Washington Post reported, despite his trail of writings and TV commentaries that labeled Mueller's initial appointment as "ridiculous," questioned the scope of investigation and doped out ideas for how Trump could thwart it.
People close to Whitaker also told the Post they strongly doubt Whitaker would approve any request from Mueller to subpoena the president. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Politico that even though Trump's legal team has been drafting answers to Mueller's questions, it hasn't made a final decision on whether to submit them.
If Mueller gets to finish writing the report, it's going to be Whitaker's call on whether to release it. But that doesn't mean he could be sure of keeping it buried for long, as the Democrats taking over the House, armed with subpoena power, would demand to see it.
And what if Mueller wants to charge, say, Trump confidant Roger Stone in connection with the WikiLeaks dumps of hacked emails or Donald Trump Jr. over his meeting with Russian would-be informants? “You would always take that meeting,” Whitaker said in one of his appearances as a pro-Trump legal commentator on CNN.
As for the president, it has been long assumed that Mueller doubts he could directly bring charges against a sitting president; that's for Congress to decide. But there also are Trump-related investigations by the Manhattan U.S. attorney that reach back to before his presidency. As of now, Whitaker oversees those, too.
While Trump, Whitaker and a suit by a Stone associate heard in court Thursday have challenged Mueller's legitimacy, others are raising that question about Whitaker.
Multiple legal experts doubt that Whitaker legally qualifies to serve as acting attorney general because his previous job, as Sessions' chief of staff, didn't require confirmation from the Senate. (Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, passed over by Trump, went through that process.)
A New York Times op-ed by conservative lawyer George Conway (yes, Kellyanne's husband) and liberal lawyer Neal Katyal contends the choice of Whitaker is flatly unconstitutional, and "it defies one of the explicit checks and balances set out in the Constitution." That, they said, "means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid."
Absent vetting by the Senate, "there has been no mechanism for scrutinizing whether he has the character and ability to evenhandedly enforce the law," they said. "... The public is entitled to that assurance, especially since Mr. Whitaker’s only supervisor is Mr. Trump himself, and the president is hopelessly compromised by the Mueller investigation.
More background-check material on Whitaker.
He has espoused the view that the courts “are supposed to be the inferior branch” — not co-equal with the executive and legislative branches — and contended the U.S. Supreme Court messed up in 1803 when it decided the courts could review decisions by the other branches.
During his unsuccessful bid for Iowa's Republican Senate nomination in 2014, he said he wanted judges to have "a biblical view of justice" — specifically, the New Testament version.
Whitaker was on the advisory board of a company that was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission and ordered to pay a $26 million settlement for scamming aspiring inventors who paid thousands of dollars thinking they would get patents and licensing deals.
In one instance, he cited his past role as a federal prosecutor to threaten a customer who filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau that "there could be serious civil and criminal consequences for you.”
One of Whitaker's boosters with Trump, according to the Daily Mail, was Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican denounced by the head of the House Republicans' campaign arm last week for his alliances with white supremacists.
Whitsaker told a radio interviewer: "The left is trying to sow this theory that essentially Russians interfered with the U.S. election, which has been proven false." Uh, wrong.
Janison: Low he goes
Common sense tells you the reason behind Trump's snappishness and taunting of some GOP election losers at his postelection news conference, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. He's feeling the heat from the Republican loss of the House.
He was trying to keep his audience from suspecting the obvious — that in some races he may have helped rhetorically poison the waters for members of his own party — and tame those who might be tempted to blame him.
Border in the courts
A U.S. appeals court blocked Trump Thursday from immediately ending the Obama-era dreamers program that shields 700,000 young immigrants from deportation. The U.S. Supreme Court could eventually decide the fate of DACA.
Meanwhile, The Trump administration announced a new regulation to bar migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border if they cross illegally. A court challenge is sure to follow.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose days in the Cabinet job appear to be numbered, is reaching out to Fox News to try to line up a commentator gig, Politico reported.
Acosta didn't accost her
In yanking the White House press pass of CNN's Jim Acosta after a nasty exchange with Trump at Wednesday's news conference, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders first accused him of "placing his hands on a young woman" who came over to take away the microphone. On Thursday, a Sanders statement offered version 2.0: He made "contact" with her.
Unedited video shows that as the intern reached over to grab the mic, his hand brushed against her arm, and he said, "Pardon me, ma’am.” Sanders tweeted out a video that experts said was digitally altered to speed up the motion of Acosta's arm and make his move look more aggressive.
What else is happening:
- Several hundred Long Islanders held rallies in Patchogue and Huntington to demand that Mueller's investigation be protected, Newsday's Craig Schneider reported. Other big rallies were held elsewhere, including Times Square and in Washington.
- Michelle Obama's new memoir calls Trump's "birther" fakery bigoted, dangerous, and "deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks."
- Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta (no relation to Jim) are among those Trump is considering over the longer term for U.S. attorney general, CNN reported.
- Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in "solemn respect" for the victims of the mass shooting in a Thousand Oaks, California, country music bar. That came 12 days after he did the same for victims of the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
- Trump attended the formal investiture ceremony at the Supreme Court for Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
- North Korea canceled nuclear talks this week between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a senior North Korean official, according to South Korea's foreign minister.
- More than 113 million people voted in Tuesday's elections, according to the U.S. Election Project, the highest midterm turnout rate since 1966, The Hill reported.
- Senate races remain undecided pending the completion of counts and recounts in Arizona and Florida. Depending on the outcomes, the GOP Senate majority could be as small as 52 seats — assuming the Republican wins a Mississippi runoff — or as big as 54. It's now 51.
- Kris Kobach's commission to investigate "massive" voter fraud for Trump was a flop. So was the hard-line conservative's run as the Republican candidate for governor in red-state Kansas. So he could be headed back to the Trump administration, The Associated Press reports.
- Politico has a list of potential Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Warning: It's not a fast read.