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No clarity on whether Whitaker sought ethics advice on potential conflicts in Russia probe

President Donald Trump's interim pick to head the Justice Department has been on the job for four weeks, but...

Posted: Dec 5, 2018 7:15 AM
Updated: Dec 5, 2018 7:15 AM

President Donald Trump's interim pick to head the Justice Department has been on the job for four weeks, but Matthew Whitaker has been noticeably silent about how he is handling any potential conflicts of interest while guiding the department through one of the most politically charged environments in decades.

For now, officials in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's office continue to handle management of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but Whitaker's ability to pull rank as the acting attorney general and overrule Rosenstein's judgment may prove crucial in coming weeks as the investigation winds down -- leading to mounting questions about what steps Whitaker has taken, or not taken, to heed any ethics advice after now serving 28 days as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

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Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee renewed their concerns Tuesday, writing in a letter to Justice officials that Whitaker's financial disclosure forms were only recently certified as true by ethics officials (after multiple revisions), and moreover "the Department has not produced prior versions of Mr. Whitaker's financial disclosures, any ethics agreements he entered into with the Department, or any other ethics-related counseling he has received."

Also on Tuesday, hundreds of former Justice Department officials signed on to an open letter voicing their unease about his appointment and noting he "has not been fully vetted for any potential conflicts of interest."

Questions began soon after Whitaker's appointment last month, as his past skepticism of Mueller's work resurfaced, along with his personal tie to one of the witnesses in the probe -- all of which prompted calls for him to step aside from direct oversight of the investigation. The Justice Department, in turn, issued a broad statement suggesting that Whitaker would consult with ethics officials as he deemed necessary, but the department stopped short of confirming that he had, in fact, begun seeking ethics guidance on any possible conflicts.

"Acting AG Whitaker is fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures at the Department of Justice, including consulting with senior ethics officials on his oversight responsibilities and matters that may warrant recusal," Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec told CNN on November 12.

It is not uncommon for the Justice Department to decline to discuss recusal issues when doing so may confirm the existence of certain investigations that are not yet public, but its steadfast refusal to confirm whether Whitaker has even initiated an ethics review has raised eyebrows.

"The whole point of the ethics rules is to ensure that government officials are working in the public interest free from conflicts. With every passing day, DOJ's silence undermines public confidence in the rule of law," Austin Evers, executive director of the watchdog organization American Oversight, told CNN. "The ethics analysis for Matthew Whitaker should be straightforward and it should be done by now."

While calls for information have been met with radio silence at the department thus far, Whitaker's private conversations with lawmakers have confirmed he has no intention of stepping aside.

After meeting with Whitaker on Capitol Hill just before Thanksgiving, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters that Whitaker "believed he did not have a reason to recuse himself legally or factually."

Under Justice Department regulations, an employee must not participate in a criminal investigation if he has "a personal or political relationship" with any person or organization that is "substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation" or could be "directly affected" by its outcome.

Whitaker's predecessor, Jeff Sessions, recused himself in March 2017 from any investigation related to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. White House officials, however, believe that Whitaker's situation differs from his former boss', because Sessions was a Trump campaign surrogate, whereas Whitaker's past interviews and writings on Mueller do not rise to the same level, in their view.

But in a few weeks, when Democrats take the reins in the House, Whitaker may face increasing pressure to answer these ethics-related questions.

Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Elijah Cummings of Maryland -- key Democrats slated to lead the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, respectively -- spoke to Whitaker by phone late last week, and while sources briefed on the call said the acting attorney general provided little information, one Democratic aide said the House Judiciary Committee expects him to answer questions fully in January.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 473413

Reported Deaths: 9214
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32339474
Hinds30703575
DeSoto29814346
Jackson23263336
Rankin21111358
Lee14600217
Madison14043265
Jones13165218
Forrest12953233
Lauderdale11418297
Lowndes10249175
Lamar10048128
Pearl River8737209
Lafayette8078136
Hancock7324111
Washington6837147
Oktibbeha6820118
Neshoba6404201
Monroe6372158
Warren6326161
Pontotoc610393
Panola6071124
Bolivar6016143
Marshall5972118
Union564086
Pike5491133
Lincoln5232130
Alcorn520888
George457868
Scott451993
Leflore4401140
Prentiss437276
Itawamba436198
Tippah436180
Simpson4268111
Copiah425586
Wayne424863
Tate4234100
Adams4219114
Yazoo415886
Sunflower4088104
Covington407391
Marion4032100
Leake393185
Coahoma388198
Newton364474
Grenada3517101
Stone345657
Tishomingo324888
Attala321185
Jasper310262
Winston300391
Clay288273
Chickasaw282164
Clarke277487
Calhoun259739
Holmes259485
Smith243947
Yalobusha216747
Tallahatchie215649
Walthall205557
Greene204045
Lawrence203831
Perry196453
Amite193751
Webster191941
Noxubee174538
Montgomery169853
Jefferson Davis165541
Carroll159937
Tunica148434
Benton139433
Kemper137439
Claiborne125634
Choctaw124925
Humphreys123337
Franklin115227
Quitman101825
Wilkinson99835
Jefferson86632
Sharkey62120
Issaquena1916
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 764839

Reported Deaths: 13048
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1089971721
Mobile698041173
Madison48181574
Baldwin35619445
Shelby35053289
Tuscaloosa32903508
Montgomery32475655
Lee21787203
Calhoun19941374
Morgan19234315
Etowah18509422
Marshall17217258
Houston16028347
St. Clair14866275
Limestone14059179
Elmore13943241
Cullman13942234
Lauderdale13030266
Talladega12307211
DeKalb11829226
Walker10171306
Autauga9439124
Blount9357149
Jackson9055136
Coffee8625157
Colbert8287164
Dale8241151
Escambia6436103
Tallapoosa6353166
Covington6291154
Chilton6215129
Russell590154
Franklin561294
Chambers5211130
Dallas4610176
Marion4579114
Clarke449471
Pike448289
Geneva4223102
Winston404685
Lawrence4040101
Bibb394776
Barbour337067
Marengo319979
Monroe310346
Butler308483
Pickens298369
Randolph291655
Henry291455
Hale285281
Cherokee278249
Fayette270671
Washington242645
Crenshaw231664
Clay220761
Macon213254
Cleburne208746
Lamar186339
Conecuh176538
Lowndes168756
Coosa162531
Wilcox153934
Bullock146842
Perry134035
Sumter122935
Greene118541
Choctaw72225
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