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Whitaker told he can oversee Russia probe

Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker has consulted with ethics officials at the Justice Department and they have advised him he does not need to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, a source familiar with the process told CNN.

Posted: Dec 21, 2018 10:31 AM
Updated: Dec 21, 2018 10:31 AM

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker disregarded the advice of a Justice Department ethics official to step aside from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, according to a senior department official close to the process.

Whitaker, who has previously criticized the investigation, never sought a formal recommendation about whether he needed to recuse, the source said. Instead, he received guidance on his options and the applicable rules over the course of three meetings with ethics officials and multiple discussions with his own advisers.

Ultimately, it was Whitaker's decision, but the view of ethics officials will likely raise fresh questions for Democrats on Capitol Hill who have sounded the alarm about whether he will try to undercut Mueller's work.

The ethics officials concluded there was no actual legal conflict presented that would require Whitaker to recuse himself. For example, he doesn't have a familial member involved in the probe, and unlike the situation with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Whitaker was not a surrogate for President Donald Trump's campaign.

As a result, a Justice official initially told CNN that Whitaker was advised that he did not need to recuse. But a different picture soon emerged from the senior Justice official close to the process, who described how ethics officials noted there could be an appearance of a conflict based on Whitaker's past public comments about the investigation.

The ethics official tasked with dealing with the review described it to Whitaker's team as a "close call" whether Whitaker needed to step aside but believed, in his view, that Whitaker should recuse himself out of an abundance of caution.

A tight group of Whitaker's advisers who were heavily engaged in the ethics review process with him and ethics officials, then did their own review and ultimately recommended he not recuse himself.

Whitaker was of the mind that if it was deemed a close call, he did not want to bind his successors in a situation where there was only an appearance, not an actual legal conflict, according to the senior DOJ official close to the process.

As part of this process, ethics officials could not cite a single example or find precedent when an attorney general (or acting) was advised to recuse based on appearance only. The closest example that ethics officials could find was someone who had rendered opinions on a legal matter while in private practice and then later came to the Justice Department. It was found in that case that the employee did not need to recuse.

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd explained why Whitaker rejected the ethics officials' assessment and chose not to recuse.

According to the letter, a senior career ethics official told Whitaker that based on public comments regarding the special counsel probe, they would advise he "should recuse himself from supervision of the Special Counsel investigation because it was their view that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts likely would question the impartiality of the Acting Attorney General."

The letter notes that Whitaker has not made public comments about the investigation for 16 months. It also says Whitaker has "a lot of respect" for Mueller and said Mueller would "only go after legitimate targets."

The letter also reiterates comments Whitaker made to Sen. Lindsey Graham that he did not see a reason to fire the special counsel or believe the investigation "breached any Department guidelines."

The letter points out that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein continues to manage the Mueller probe and says Whitaker will exercise "his responsibilities under the regulation governing the Special Counsel investigation."

Not yet briefed on Mueller probe

While the process was ongoing, Whitaker was never briefed on the Mueller investigation, the source said. But Whitaker was given a heads up that President Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen would plead guilty to lying to Congress about the proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow before it was publicly announced.

It is expected he will be briefed as acting attorney general now that he has stated his position on recusal.

Rosenstein oversaw the investigation following Sessions' recusal, and his office is still managing the investigation on a day-to-day basis, as CNN has previously reported.

Attention turns to Barr

Whitaker is expected to inform senators, many of whom have raised ethics concerns given his past criticism of Mueller's investigation, about this development sometime Thursday, though lawmakers' attention has also now turned to William "Bill" Barr, who President Donald Trump has nominated to be the next attorney general on a permanent basis.

If confirmed, Barr would oversee the Mueller investigation, though his recently surfaced belief that Trump's interactions with ex-FBI Director James Comey would not constitute obstruction of justice has raised concerns among Democrats.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement that the Barr memo was "very troubling" and contended it meant Barr had argued "the President is above the law."

"We need answers as to why Barr proactively drafted this memo and then shared it with the deputy attorney general and President Trump's lawyers," read the statement from the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN he wants President Trump to "withdraw" the nomination of Barr in the aftermath of news of the memo showing Barr raising concerns about the Mueller probe, and he also sharply criticized the decision by Whitaker to not recuse from the Mueller probe.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 255125

Reported Deaths: 5574
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17197175
Hinds16280322
Harrison13502193
Rankin10749211
Jackson10407183
Lee8819141
Madison8262162
Jones6375110
Forrest5992119
Lauderdale5873180
Lowndes5381116
Lafayette496692
Lamar487565
Washington4800123
Bolivar3978108
Oktibbeha393880
Panola370779
Pontotoc365353
Monroe3543105
Warren353498
Union344760
Marshall342665
Neshoba3383152
Pearl River329799
Leflore3004105
Lincoln297685
Sunflower284969
Hancock273459
Tate272462
Alcorn264053
Pike263577
Itawamba262959
Scott246645
Yazoo245955
Prentiss245652
Copiah241949
Tippah241750
Simpson235767
Coahoma233754
Leake231164
Grenada218470
Covington213071
Marion212072
Adams205870
Wayne201331
Winston200564
George199338
Attala193759
Newton192842
Tishomingo186359
Chickasaw183944
Jasper170835
Holmes168767
Clay159433
Stone143621
Tallahatchie141034
Clarke138960
Calhoun136121
Smith120823
Yalobusha117034
Walthall112336
Noxubee110522
Greene110229
Montgomery109634
Carroll104521
Lawrence102617
Perry102231
Amite98025
Webster92424
Tunica86721
Claiborne86625
Jefferson Davis84825
Humphreys83024
Benton81823
Kemper77220
Quitman6918
Franklin66615
Choctaw60513
Wilkinson58425
Jefferson54319
Sharkey43017
Issaquena1596
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 424028

Reported Deaths: 6121
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson62258921
Mobile30381549
Madison27160186
Tuscaloosa20779267
Montgomery19049305
Shelby18572114
Baldwin16346182
Lee12515101
Morgan12260113
Etowah11757168
Calhoun11161200
Marshall10199107
Houston8630148
Cullman8036105
Limestone802874
Elmore7849101
DeKalb768897
Lauderdale760083
St. Clair7555120
Talladega6180108
Walker5903174
Jackson581341
Colbert533573
Blount530883
Autauga519855
Coffee443956
Dale398581
Franklin367548
Chilton337665
Russell331710
Covington327768
Escambia319342
Dallas303396
Chambers284269
Clarke282133
Tallapoosa2617107
Pike249429
Marion246250
Lawrence244247
Winston227335
Bibb216247
Geneva202535
Marengo199729
Pickens197031
Hale176442
Barbour173036
Butler170258
Fayette169026
Cherokee160530
Henry154421
Monroe145617
Randolph140735
Washington137726
Clay126745
Crenshaw119544
Lamar118219
Cleburne117723
Macon115035
Lowndes110735
Wilcox103121
Bullock99128
Perry97719
Conecuh94420
Sumter89126
Greene76123
Coosa60515
Choctaw51524
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