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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: 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
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 768301

Reported Deaths: 13209
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1093481727
Mobile699891179
Madison48418589
Baldwin35707452
Shelby35193291
Tuscaloosa33029512
Montgomery32582664
Lee21908204
Calhoun20140377
Morgan19351318
Etowah18583433
Marshall17272259
Houston16139353
St. Clair14956276
Limestone14129180
Cullman14069235
Elmore14010245
Lauderdale13128272
Talladega12399215
DeKalb11890229
Walker10231312
Autauga9493127
Blount9418149
Jackson9115136
Coffee8646161
Colbert8324169
Dale8284159
Escambia6456106
Tallapoosa6394168
Covington6313157
Chilton6243133
Russell591654
Franklin563597
Chambers5240132
Marion4628115
Dallas4626178
Clarke451471
Pike450091
Geneva4252106
Winston407987
Lawrence4046102
Bibb396177
Barbour338968
Marengo320981
Monroe311547
Butler309783
Pickens298769
Randolph294055
Henry293856
Hale286081
Cherokee279850
Fayette272271
Washington243545
Crenshaw232265
Clay221561
Macon214454
Cleburne209748
Lamar187839
Conecuh177139
Lowndes169056
Coosa163631
Wilcox154335
Bullock147142
Perry134235
Sumter123335
Greene119241
Choctaw72325
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