Want to hear a funny joke?
OK, here goes: Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is going to recuse himself from overseeing the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Pretty good one, right?
I kid. But not really.
Look, I get why Democrats, in the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the appointment of Whitaker, sought to push the idea of recusal. Whitaker has made any number of statements in the past that suggest he is disinclined to provide the sort of defense of Robert Mueller’s probe that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has. In a 2017 op-ed for CNN, Whitaker wrote:
“It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel. If he doesn’t, then Mueller’s investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition.”
There’s plenty of other fodder just like that from Whitaker, all of which makes the same point: Whitaker, like Trump, is very skeptical of Mueller’s probe. Which could be, at least in theory, grounds for Whitaker to recuse himself.
Notice how I said “in theory.” Because here’s the reality: Whitaker ain’t recusing himself.
Consider everything we know about how Whitaker came to be chosen as acting attorney general:
1. Sessions drew Trump’s ire for recusing himself from the Russia probe due to his status as a prominent surrogate for the President during the 2016 campaign. (Sessions’ recusal came after it became known that he had not revealed several interactions with Russian officials when under questioning by senators during his confirmation hearings.)
2. Trump had repeatedly expressed his frustration with Rosenstein and his support for the independence of Mueller’s investigation. (Trump reportedly referred to Rosenstein as “Mr. Peepers” in private, although he denied that.) Rosenstein also became a target for House conservatives — most notably California Rep. Devin Nunes (R) — who insisted that he was not being entirely forthcoming in answering their demands for documents related to the origins of the Russia inquiry.
3. Trump fired Sessions the day after the midterm election, after 18 months of bullying him publicly and privately — all of which sprung from his anger at Sessions’ recusal.
4. Trump chose to pass over Rosenstein in picking an acting attorney general.
5. Trump named Whitaker to the role — in a tweet! — after Whitaker had repeatedly spoken out regarding his issues with Mueller’s probe.
Now ask yourself this: Given that sequence of events, WHY the hell would Whitaker ever recuse himself?
Asked about the possibility of recusal, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Thursday morning, “I don’t know why he’d be recused. I’m not recused. You’re not recused.”
He was literally chosen for the gig to NOT recuse himself. He was named so that Trump could seize back control of an investigation that he has long railed against as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”
Not convinced? Think about this: If Whitaker had spoken and written about how much faith he had in Mueller (and Rosenstein) and what a good job they were doing, do you think he would have been picked by Trump to be acting attorney general?
OF COURSE NOT.
Trump spent much of the past 18 months fuming — in private and in public — about how long the Mueller investigation was taking, how it was a total hoax, how Mueller and his investigatory team were hopelessly biased and on and on and on. On Wednesday, Trump made his play — to, if not end the Mueller probe, then get some control back over it. (There is some debate as to whether Whitaker, who does not have Senate confirmation, can even serve as acting attorney general.)
Here’s what Trump said when asked about the Russia investigation on Wednesday afternoon — before the Sessions firing went public:
“I stay away from it. But you know what I do? I let it just go on. They’re wasting a lot of money, but I let it go on, because I don’t want to do that. But you’re right; I could end it right now. I could say, ‘That investigation is over.’ “
Or he could take baby steps. Like this one.