Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker, who now oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, has publicly railed against the investigation.
Mr. Whitaker assumed control of the Justice Department, including the Mueller probe, after being named acting attorney general Wednesday. He will replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned at President Trump’s request.
Two months before joining the Justice Department as Mr. Sessions’ chief of staff in October 2017, Mr. Whitaker wrote an opinion piece for CNN arguing that the special counsel would cross a line if he began investigating the finances of Mr. Trump and his family.
“It does not take a lawyer or even a former federal prosecutor like myself to conclude that investigating Donald Trump’s finances or his family’s finances falls completely outside the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else,” Mr. Whitaker wrote. “That goes beyond the scope of the special counsel.”
It is not the only time Mr. Whitaker has expressed skepticism of the Mueller probe.
In a July 2017 appearance on CNN, Mr. Whitaker outlined how the president could fire Mr. Sessions and replace him with an interim official, who then slashes the special counsel’s budget instead of outright firing Mr. Mueller.
“So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” Mr. Whitaker told the news network. “And that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
And in August 2017, Mr. Whitaker used his personal Twitter account to promote an op-ed by another lawyer who called the Mueller probe “a lynch mob.”
Those arguments appeared to impress Mr. Trump, who considered Mr. Whitaker as potential replacements for both Mr. Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to media reports.
George J. Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general who is now private practice lawyer, has worked with Mr. Whitaker. He said he is not concerned about Mr. Whitaker’s criticism of the investigation he now runs.
“I think anyone in a supervisory position at the Justice Department ought to be making sure that any subordinate, including a special counsel, is doing his or her job the way it’s supposed to be done,” Mr. Terwilliger said. “In his position as acting attorney general, he may bear the ultimate responsibility for what happens so he ought to know what is going on.
“If he has problems with the investigation, and I don’t know that he does or doesn’t, I’m sure he’ll take that up with the special counsel,” he said.
Mr. Whitaker also was reportedly considered a possible successor for former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II.
In an interview last week with The Washington Times, Mr. Trump called his now-acting attorney general a “very talented person” and “a very good person.” But he also denied speaking with him about succeeding Mr. Sessions.
An Iowa native, Mr. Whitaker earned undergraduate, business and law degrees from the University of Iowa, where he also played tight end for the football team.
He served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 to 2009 and entered the 2014 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, but lost to Joni Ernst, who went on to win the seat.
During that failed Senate campaign, Mr. Whitaker openly courted the evangelical base who elected Mr. Trump. At one point, Mr. Whitaker said if elected he would ask judicial candidates if they were “people of faith” and had “a biblical view of justice,” The New York Times reported.
Mr. Terwilliger said Mr. Trump made a good decision to put the Justice Department in the hands of Mr. Whitaker.
“He’s someone who has the rare quality of being both a good lawyer with solid political instincts and not afraid to make decisions, which is an essential characteristic to operate at that level of the Justice Department,” he said.