WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied asking former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to appoint a Trump ally to oversee the federal probe into Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen.
Trump, speaking to reporters at an unrelated bill signing ceremony at the Oval Office, pushed back against a New York Times article published Tuesday that indicated the president had asked Whitaker whether U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a Trump appointee, could lead the probe into Cohen’s handling of hush money payments to two alleged Trump paramours during the 2016 presidential election.
Berman, who was tapped by Trump to lead the Manhattan-based Southern District of New York after Trump removed Preet Bharara from the role in March 2017, had recused himself from the Cohen investigation and remains detached from the probe.
Trump, when asked if he had inquired with Whitaker about placing Berman in charge of the investigation, said: "No, not at all. I don't know who gave you that … more fake news.”
Whitaker previously told the House Judiciary Committee that Trump never pressured him about the Justice Department’s separate investigations into Cohen and the Trump campaign’s purported ties to Russia.
The Justice Department, responding to the Times report, issued a statement reiterating Whitaker’s remarks to the committee.
“Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’ ” said Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”
Trump on Tuesday also denounced the 16 states who are suing to block his attempt to fund a southern border wall via a national emergency declaration.
On Twitter, Trump took aim specifically at California, whose Democratic attorney general, Xavier Becerra, led the effort to file the lawsuit in which all participating states — including New York — have a Democratic attorney general.
“As I predicted, 16 states, led mostly by Open Border Democrats and the Radical Left, have filed a lawsuit in, of course, the 9th Circuit!,” Trump tweeted, referring to the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which has previously ruled against his travel ban and efforts to curb U.S. asylum petitions.
Last Friday, at a news conference to outline his emergency declaration, Trump predicted the declaration would face a legal challenge in the Ninth Circuit, a federal bench he has often derided as a “disgrace” and liberal-leaning on Twitter and in campaign rallies.
“We will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we'll get another bad ruling and then we'll end up in the Supreme Court," Trump said last Friday, adding that he hoped he would get a “fair shake” in the conservative-leaning Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, Trump offered a more optimistic take on his prospects, telling reporters: "I actually think we might do very well, even in the Ninth Circuit, because it’s an open-and-closed case.”
The lawsuit filed on Monday argues that Trump’s national emergency declaration is unconstitutional in part because Congress, through the appropriations process, repeatedly denied Trump’s $5.7 billion request for a border wall.
“President Trump treats the rule of law with utter contempt,” Becerra said in a statement on Monday. “He knows there is no border crisis, he knows his emergency declaration is unwarranted, and he admits that he will likely lose this case in court.”
The White House has argued the National Emergencies Act gives Trump broad powers to declare an emergency and divert funding from military construction projects and drug enforcement programs to build additional barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Congress, under a bipartisan border security deal signed by Trump last week, allocated $1.375 billion for 55 miles of fencing in Texas. Trump is looking to use the emergency declaration to tap into $6 billion in military funding and drug forfeiture money to pay for the wall.
Trump on Twitter criticized California’s recently announced plans to dramatically scale back a high-speed rail project that received federal funding, arguing the funding could be used to pay for the border wall.
“The failed Fast Train project in California, where the cost overruns are becoming world record setting, is hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!” Trump tweeted.