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: 319115

Reported Deaths: 7353
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22246264
Hinds20612421
Harrison18342316
Rankin13855282
Jackson13666248
Madison10213224
Lee10050176
Jones8452167
Forrest7810153
Lauderdale7253242
Lowndes6488149
Lamar632288
Lafayette6295120
Washington5412136
Bolivar4833133
Panola4659110
Oktibbeha465898
Pearl River4591146
Marshall4571105
Warren4436121
Pontotoc424573
Union415576
Monroe4154135
Neshoba4059179
Lincoln4007111
Hancock385187
Leflore3514125
Tate342386
Sunflower339391
Pike3366110
Alcorn323272
Scott319274
Yazoo313971
Adams304785
Itawamba304777
Copiah299666
Coahoma298283
Simpson297889
Tippah291168
Prentiss283361
Leake271674
Marion271280
Covington266683
Wayne264442
Grenada264087
George251851
Newton248563
Tishomingo230867
Winston229881
Jasper222048
Attala214973
Chickasaw210459
Holmes190374
Clay187454
Stone187233
Tallahatchie179941
Clarke178980
Calhoun173732
Yalobusha167740
Smith164034
Walthall135147
Greene131633
Lawrence131024
Montgomery128643
Noxubee127934
Perry126638
Amite125942
Carroll122330
Webster115032
Tunica107927
Jefferson Davis107633
Claiborne102930
Benton102225
Humphreys97533
Kemper96628
Franklin84923
Quitman81816
Choctaw79018
Wilkinson69332
Jefferson66228
Sharkey50817
Issaquena1696
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 547323

Reported Deaths: 11266
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson808021563
Mobile41925826
Madison35600522
Tuscaloosa26136458
Shelby25554254
Montgomery25067610
Baldwin21774313
Lee16234175
Calhoun14692325
Morgan14614285
Etowah14132361
Marshall12443230
Houston10748287
Elmore10295212
Limestone10180157
St. Clair10146250
Cullman9921200
Lauderdale9582248
DeKalb8955189
Talladega8441184
Walker7318279
Autauga7215113
Blount6925139
Jackson6900113
Colbert6394139
Coffee5616126
Dale4928114
Russell454441
Chilton4461116
Franklin430683
Covington4263122
Tallapoosa4117154
Escambia400280
Chambers3715123
Dallas3604156
Clarke352861
Marion3231106
Pike313978
Lawrence3121100
Winston283372
Bibb267364
Geneva256981
Marengo250565
Pickens236562
Barbour234559
Hale226578
Butler223371
Fayette217162
Henry193843
Cherokee187245
Randolph186844
Monroe179141
Washington170339
Macon163051
Clay159559
Crenshaw155057
Cleburne152543
Lamar145837
Lowndes141953
Wilcox127030
Bullock124242
Conecuh112930
Coosa111129
Perry108726
Sumter105732
Greene93434
Choctaw61725
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