WASHINGTON — Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Donald Trump as part of that investigation.
Since stepping into his new role on Wednesday, Whitaker has faced questions — principally from Democrats — about whether he should recuse from the Russia investigation, given that he has written opinion pieces about the investigation, and is a friend and political ally of a witness.
On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he has no intention of taking himself off the Russia case.
Ethics officials at the Justice Department are likely to review his past work to see if he has any financial or personal conflicts. In many instances, that office does not require a Justice Department official to recuse, but suggests a course of action. Senior Justice Department officials have tended to follow such advice, but they are rarely required to do so, according to officials familiar with the process.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Officials there have said Whitaker will follow the regular procedure in handling any ethics issues that arise.
In 2014, Whitaker chaired the campaign of Sam Clovis, a Republican candidate for Iowa state treasurer. Clovis went on to work as a Trump campaign adviser and has become a witness in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The Justice Department advises employees that "generally, an employee should seek advice from an ethics official before participating in any matter in which her impartiality could be questioned." Regulations prohibit employees, "without written authorization, from participating in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution."
Ethics officials might advise Whitaker that his commentary created the appearance of a conflict of interest and leave the decision to him. If they recommended forcefully that he recuse himself and he declined, Whitaker could then be referred to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, and his license to practice law could be put at issue.
The two people close to Whitaker also said they strongly believe he would not approve any request from special counsel Robert Mueller to subpoena the president. Mueller and Trump's lawyers have negotiated for months about a possible interview, with no agreement in sight.
Whitaker's elevation to the nation's top law-enforcement official followed the ouster Wednesday of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions had endured months of public abuse from Trump, who had soured on him because he recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation shortly after he arrived at the Justice Department.
Sessions felt that Mueller's investigation had gone on too long, but also believed it was important that he stay in the attorney general's post as a means of protecting the special counsel's work so that, when it was concluded, the public would have confidence it had not been manipulated, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
Even after he arrived at the Justice Department, Whitaker harbored frustration about the length of the special counsel's probe and doubts about the scope of Mueller's authority, a person familiar with the matter said. He questioned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's ability to give Mueller such wide latitude and wanted to explore the bounds of what Mueller was examining, though Rosenstein kept Session's office "walled off" from the matter, this person said. Whitaker did, however, believe that Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself from the matter, the person said.
Rosenstein and Whitaker have come to eye each other warily in recent months, people familiar with the matter said. When Rosenstein was nearly ousted from his post over reports that he had suggested surreptitiously recording the president, Whitaker was tapped to take over Rosenstein's position. But after a visit to the White House, Rosenstein returned and stayed in his job, leaving people across the Justice Department — Whitaker included — mystified as to what happened, these people said.
Rosenstein and Whitaker both were present at the investiture of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday — Whitaker dressed in a "morning suit," which included formal trousers, a vest and a long coat, a person familiar with the matter said.
While Whitaker is now Mueller's ultimate supervisor, it was not immediately clear whether that meant Rosenstein would step aside. Justice Department officials said that under normal circumstances, the deputy attorney general would probably play an active, hands-on role in overseeing such a high profile probe, and they had no reason to believe that Rosenstein would now be cut out.
Whitaker was virtually unknown to Sessions before becoming his chief of staff, though Federalist Society Executive President Leonard Leo had been touting the former U.S. Attorney from Iowa as early as the transition, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Leo had come to know Whitaker because both were prominent in conservative legal circles, and he considered Whitaker a true conservative and talented manager, this person said.
Initially, Sessions chose Jody Hunt, a longtime Justice Department official, to be the top aide in his office, while Whitaker made a name for himself in Washington via TV appearances and his work with the conservative Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
While liked by Sessions, Hunt clashed with Danielle Cutrona, another aide in the attorney general's office, in such a way that those around Sessions realized one or the other would have to move on, according to people familiar with the matter. Leo then recommended Whitaker to Cutrona, who passed the recommendation to Sessions, the people said.
Sessions brought Whitaker in for an interview and came to like him, people familiar with the matter said. Hunt was nominated to lead the Justice Department's civil division.
Whitaker was a hard-charging top aide to Sessions, imposing on the Justice Department his personal philosophy of starting with the end in mind. His style rubbed many the wrong way, and at times Justice Department officials pushed back on his demands. Department officials said his taking over for his boss was, at the very least, awkward, because chiefs of staff typically leave with the attorney general.
On Wednesday evening, Sessions gathered dozens of top Justice Department officials in the attorney general's conference room, according to a person familiar with the matter. He talked about loving the job and framed his removal as something that happens to every attorney general, the person said. He also said he thought Whitaker would carry the torch, the person said.
In a note sent to the Justice Department staff on Thursday, Sessions wrote, "No matter what your role at the Department and no matter what your task, I hope that you will remember that you are helping us in our mission to protect the American people and the rights we hold dear."