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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

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CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds7850176
DeSoto685779
Harrison505083
Jackson445084
Rankin388186
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Lee350779
Forrest299578
Jones287784
Washington255199
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Lamar221238
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Neshoba1831111
Lowndes176362
Panola169038
Leflore165187
Sunflower159749
Warren153655
Monroe147372
Pontotoc145819
Marshall139227
Lincoln138557
Pike137756
Copiah136236
Coahoma124736
Scott124729
Grenada121138
Yazoo120733
Simpson120449
Union116525
Tate114939
Leake114340
Holmes114160
Pearl River112259
Itawamba112125
Adams106743
Prentiss103719
Wayne99821
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George97718
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Marion93542
Tippah88121
Newton85227
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Tallahatchie83025
Winston82821
Tishomingo80041
Hancock79827
Attala78926
Clarke73450
Clay68321
Jasper67717
Walthall63627
Calhoun61912
Noxubee59617
Smith58916
Montgomery53523
Claiborne53316
Tunica52817
Yalobusha51914
Lawrence50714
Perry48623
Carroll47612
Greene46918
Stone46214
Humphreys42616
Amite42113
Quitman4196
Jefferson Davis40011
Webster37013
Wilkinson33520
Benton3255
Kemper32015
Sharkey28014
Jefferson27410
Franklin2373
Choctaw2046
Issaquena1074
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 154942

Reported Deaths: 2660
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson22861374
Mobile14468314
Tuscaloosa10148139
Montgomery9875196
Madison915094
Shelby720462
Lee649665
Baldwin647569
Marshall433049
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Morgan403635
Houston369232
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St. Clair287142
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Walker272293
Talladega261035
Cullman235724
Lauderdale214841
Jackson210015
Autauga202330
Franklin202131
Colbert196731
Russell19233
Blount189325
Dallas186227
Chilton184132
Escambia171929
Coffee171710
Covington169929
Dale165451
Chambers133643
Pike132313
Tallapoosa130587
Clarke130017
Marion106229
Butler100140
Barbour9979
Marengo99222
Winston91313
Geneva8527
Pickens82417
Lawrence82131
Randolph81216
Bibb81114
Hale74930
Clay72912
Cherokee72614
Lowndes70328
Monroe64010
Henry6396
Bullock63717
Washington63412
Crenshaw60230
Perry5836
Wilcox56212
Fayette56113
Conecuh55713
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Sumter47021
Lamar4665
Choctaw38812
Greene34216
Coosa2023
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