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Key Senate Republican downplays concerns over Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley on Tuesday downplayed concerns raised by Democrats on multiple fron...

Posted: Nov 14, 2018 4:58 AM
Updated: Nov 14, 2018 4:58 AM

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley on Tuesday downplayed concerns raised by Democrats on multiple fronts about conflicts of interest involving acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker or that Whitaker might interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Grassley and other senior Republicans said they were confident Whitaker would get clearance from ethics officials at the Justice Department, and they rebuffed Democratic calls for hauling Whitaker up to Capitol Hill to testify.

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"I heard over TV or radio that Whitaker is going to ask the ethics people whether he should be recused. I think that answers it," the Iowa Republican said. "Doesn't matter what the Democrats think. If he is going through that process that's going to answer that question."

Asked if Whitaker, who met recently with Grassley, provided assurances he would not interfere in the Mueller investigation, Grassley said President Donald Trump has made that assurance and that's what matters.

"It seems to me that the President is the chief executive and the President said that he wasn't going to do that," Grassley said. "Doesn't matter what Whitaker thinks. The President said it isn't going to be done."

Grassley's backing comes as Democrats have demanded that Whitaker recuse himself in the Mueller probe over his past comments criticizing the investigation -- and newly empowered House Democrats have signaled they will investigate Jeff Sessions' firing and Whitaker's appointment when they take power in January.

Democrats and others have also argued that Whitaker's appointment may not be lawful because he was never confirmed by the Senate. Maryland's Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a court challenge Tuesday to replace Whitaker with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as acting attorney general.

"No matter what the Trump Justice Department says, there is no acceptable justification for this appointment," said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. "Even conservative justices on the Supreme Court have essentially made that argument."

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent Grassley two letters calling for hearings with Whitaker and Sessions. "The circumstances surrounding Attorney General Sessions' departure raise serious questions, including whether the appointment is lawful and the possible impact on Special Counsel Mueller's investigation," Feinstein wrote.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said he hopes "Whitaker's time as acting AG is extraordinarily brief," calling on the President to pick a well-qualified candidate sooner rather than later.

Grassley said a hearing with Whitaker was "under consideration," and he hadn't made a decision yet. But the Iowa Republican also noted he was not concerned about past remarks from Whitaker that were critical of the Mueller investigation.

"As long as he made them as a private citizen, no," Grassley said.

Other Republicans on the Judiciary panel said Whitaker should not testify.

"I don't see an advantage to doing that," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, adding that Democrats would likely try "to smear him -- there may be some who may like to do that."

Hatch told CNN that he's not concerned that Whitaker will act improperly with the Mueller probe. "Anybody who acts improperly will find themselves on the front page and not be in very good shape," he said. "He's going to be in a very tough position and people are going to watch him very carefully."

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told CNN that he hadn't yet spoken to Whitaker, and said it "would be a mistake" for him to interfere with the Mueller probe. But Cornyn added: "I think Director Mueller needs to wrap this thing up. He needs to finish his job. This thing has been hanging out there for a long time. Certainly I would think he's got virtually all the information he needs in order to make a decision and write a report."

Cornyn added he was not interested in the attorney general job.

Push for bill to protect Mueller

Democrats and a handful of Republicans are renewing a push for legislation to protect Mueller in the wake of Whitaker's appointment.

Leahy said he wanted stand-alone legislation, asserting that many Republicans privately agree that Whitaker might try to shape the Russia investigation.

The special counsel legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in the spring, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear he doesn't intend to bring it to the floor for a vote, a position the Kentucky Republican reiterated last week in the wake of Sessions' firing.

Sen. Jeff Flake, the retiring Arizona Republican senator, tweeted that he would seek unanimous consent to vote on the bill on the Senate floor this week. But that effort is likely to be objected to, stopping it from going anywhere.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats would also try to attach legislation protecting the special counsel to the must-pass spending bill that Congress needs to pass during the lame-duck session. Schumer also said that Congress wanted to be notified of the results of Whitaker's meetings with ethics officials.

"Mr. Whitaker has prejudged the outcome of an investigation he now oversees," Schumer said.

Grassley, who helped broker a compromise on the legislation in the committee, said he supports the Mueller bill, but deferred to McConnell about moving it to the full Senate.

"The answer is, if it comes for a vote, I will vote for that bill. Whether it comes to a vote is up to the leader and I'm going to respect the leader's right to bring it up," he said.

Finally, Grassley said he will have an answer "in a few days" on whether he will remain chairman of the Judiciary Committee or move over to be chair of the Finance Committee, something that would be available to him with Hatch retiring.

He said he needs to consult his GOP colleagues before deciding.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 147382

Reported Deaths: 3763
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto973199
Hinds9668197
Harrison6898109
Jackson6178119
Rankin5319100
Lee487695
Madison4666106
Forrest371386
Jones346788
Lauderdale3355144
Lafayette317549
Washington3122107
Lamar283449
Oktibbeha240861
Bolivar240184
Lowndes229763
Neshoba2177115
Panola215849
Marshall209650
Leflore201490
Pontotoc196128
Monroe191477
Sunflower190555
Lincoln186865
Warren172657
Tate165451
Union163925
Pike160658
Copiah159540
Yazoo152039
Scott150729
Coahoma148743
Itawamba148234
Pearl River146567
Alcorn146327
Simpson145153
Prentiss141230
Adams137949
Grenada137745
Leake131943
Holmes126561
Tippah123030
George122324
Covington119737
Winston119124
Wayne116223
Hancock115939
Marion111646
Attala109833
Tishomingo106542
Chickasaw104132
Newton103629
Tallahatchie96327
Clarke88853
Clay87127
Jasper81222
Walthall75328
Stone73114
Calhoun72913
Montgomery72125
Carroll70614
Lawrence70314
Yalobusha70027
Noxubee69717
Smith69616
Perry65426
Tunica59619
Greene58422
Claiborne57616
Jefferson Davis55017
Humphreys52918
Amite51814
Benton48717
Quitman4816
Webster42114
Kemper41918
Wilkinson38722
Jefferson34211
Franklin3265
Choctaw3117
Sharkey30717
Issaquena1124
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 239318

Reported Deaths: 3532
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson31391491
Mobile19562361
Tuscaloosa12813154
Madison12741146
Montgomery12198235
Shelby1000577
Baldwin847398
Lee764466
Morgan634348
Calhoun6112115
Marshall607954
Etowah606565
Houston517038
DeKalb474736
Cullman428038
Limestone413744
St. Clair409055
Elmore400762
Lauderdale393653
Walker3588108
Talladega343453
Jackson307624
Colbert301941
Blount285539
Autauga268641
Franklin247833
Coffee239715
Dale230354
Dallas224531
Russell22053
Chilton219638
Covington216833
Escambia197431
Chambers173749
Tallapoosa173391
Pike157514
Clarke156319
Marion136535
Winston129923
Lawrence124836
Geneva12028
Pickens119418
Marengo119124
Barbour117010
Bibb116217
Butler114441
Randolph100921
Cherokee100824
Hale94531
Clay90223
Washington90219
Fayette87316
Henry8496
Lowndes79129
Monroe78111
Cleburne75714
Macon72321
Crenshaw70730
Bullock69119
Conecuh68314
Perry6756
Lamar6508
Wilcox63118
Sumter57122
Choctaw41913
Greene41418
Coosa3374
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