Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker has always had his eye on a higher office, even willing to mount a campaign to become Iowa’s treasurer early in his career simply because the Republican Party needed a candidate.
Mr. Whitaker was trounced in the 2002 election, as expected. But the mundane position was not the goal, fellow Hawkeyes say. Rather, it was to ingratiate himself to the state Republican Party.
“It was not a competitive race, but he put some goodwill in the Republican bank because of it,” said Guy Cook, a former federal prosecutor who has known Mr. Whitaker for nearly two decades.
That race, while little remembered, was the start of Mr. Whitaker’s long climb toward higher political positions, ultimately leading to Wednesday, when President Trump named him the acting head of the Justice Department in place of ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Mr. Trump’s moves drew scrutiny Thursday.
Top Democrats on Capitol Hill, some of them soon to be powerful committee chairs, fired off letters ordering the White House, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and others to preserve any records they have of Mr. Sessions’ forced resignation, in anticipation of a full congressional investigation.
Meanwhile, legal analysts questioned whether Mr. Trump had the power to leapfrog others, such as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and appoint Mr. Whitaker, who had been chief of staff at the department — a position that did not require Senate confirmation.
Neal K. Katyal, a former Obama administration acting solicitor general, and George T. Conway III, a lawyer and husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, wrote a New York Times column saying the move violates the Constitution’s requirement that all principal officers go through Senate confirmation.
No court challenge had been filed as of Thursday afternoon, leaving Mr. Whitaker ensconced in the position — and all sides wondering what sorts of changes he would make at the department.
Marijuana enthusiasts, for example, may be expecting a shift in the department’s get-tough prosecution policy. Marijuana company stocks rose sharply Wednesday as Mr. Sessions was ousted.
Mr. Cook said Mr. Whitaker will be independent and described the acting attorney general as “a man of his word.”
“He’s not to be underestimated,” he said. “He is a focused, disciplined guy and nobody’s fool. His reputation is important to him, and those things will come into play as he deals with being the attorney general in these times.”
But F. Montgomery Brown, an Iowa lawyer who has faced off against Mr. Whitaker in the courtroom, worried that his ambition would be a problem.
“He’s flying too close to the sun,” said Mr. Brown, a Democrat. “Is attorney general a political job or a job for extremely talented legal professionals, because he’s a political man.”
After his treasury defeat, Mr. Whitaker worked in Iowa to secure the re-election of President George W. Bush. He coordinated the campaign’s efforts for the Iowa caucuses and racked up credits within the local Republican Party. He was able to parlay his campaign work into confirmation as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa in 2004, despite never prosecuting a criminal case.
“Different parts of the country handle the U.S. attorney’s nominees differently,” Mr. Cook said. “Sometimes you see young people the party thinks is up and coming, sometimes it is given to career prosecutors and a lot of the time you see people rewarded the job for their political activism.”
In a defining moment for Iowa politics, Mr. Whitaker went toe-to-toe with state Sen. Matt McCoy, who was viewed as a rising star in state Democratic politics and was the first openly gay member of the Iowa Legislature.
Mr. Whitaker brought public corruption charges against Mr. McCoy in 2007, saying the senator used his position to force a former business partner to pay him money. Mr. McCoy insisted that the dispute was over a soured business relationship and that he did nothing wrong.
The case largely fell apart with the credibility of the government’s star witness. Former associates depicted the man, Thomas Vasquez, as a drug user, deadbeat and abuser of women. Even his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor called him a pathological liar. A jury acquitted Mr. McCoy in two hours, including time for lunch.
Mr. McCoy said he believes Mr. Whitaker targeted him as a Democrat and as a member of the LGBT community.
“I think this was completely motivated by him wanting a trophy,” he said. “It was pure ambition, and winning a case against me would have been a political shot in the arm for a guy who had failed politically.”
At the time, Mr. Whitaker, who had strong ties to Iowa’s evangelical community, denied that politics or Mr. McCoy’s sexuality influenced the case.
Mr. Brown, who was one of Mr. McCoy’s attorneys, disagrees.
“I do think the fact that Mr. McCoy was a Democrat and the state’s first openly gay legislator was a factor,” he said. “The two of them are polar opposites, and the jury declared the allegations were baseless with a prompt ‘not guilty’ verdict.”
Local Iowa papers roundly criticized the prosecution. The Des Moines Register in 2007 said the jury’s verdict was “the right one” and called the case an outrage.
Mr. McCoy said he fears Mr. Whitaker won’t be aggressive in prosecuting hate crimes against members of the LGBT community. He praised Mr. Sessions’ efforts to prosecute the killing of a 16-year-old transgender Iowa resident.
“The signal we got from DOJ is that they were going to continue to prosecute hate crimes very strong under Sessions, but I think Whitaker will be on the wrong side of this issue,” he said.
Mr. Whitaker resigned his prosecutor’s post in 2009 with the inauguration of President Obama. He went back into private practice and was co-chairman of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign.
In 2014, Mr. Whitaker ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, coming in third in a Republican primary.
He was later executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative nonprofit that was deeply involved in criticizing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s secret emails.
Mr. Whitaker also worked as commentator on CNN, where he made the now-famous comments about ending special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation by choking off the funding and argued for limiting the scope of the investigation that he is now running.
Although those statements have drawn media scrutiny in recent days, Mr. Cook noted that Mr. Whitaker made those comments while he was a private citizen.
“He was a paid pundit with a political point of view,” he said. “Those comments were made in that context, and he has a First Amendment right to make whatever comments he wants.”