White House digging in on selection of Matt Whitaker as temporary replacement for Sessions

Posted at 9:52 AM, Nov 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-13 11:52:38-05

President Donald Trump and White House officials are digging in on the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, which has drawn waves of criticism from Democrats and some conservative legal scholars.

The President also has no intention of rushing to nominate a permanent replacement for ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, resisting the pressure to minimize Whitaker’s time at the helm of the Justice Department in an acting capacity, two senior administration officials told CNN.

Instead, Whitaker appears poised to remain in his position for weeks, if not months, to come.

“The President has told me to my face, two times, that there’s no timetable for a nominee,” one senior administration official said. “And there’s no rush for that.”

Key White House officials have remained privately indignant about the criticism that Whitaker has faced, with some likening it to the scrutiny White House physician Ronny Jackson drew after he was appointed to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several senior administration officials told CNN during the initial criticism of Whitaker’s appointment that they were surprised by it and believed it could jeopardize his chances of remaining in the position.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the state of play with Whitaker, writing in an email: “Nothing new on this front.”

But a separate source told CNN that multiple administration officials had cautioned the White House, including White House chief of staff John Kelly, to take a close look at Whitaker’s background weeks before he was formally appointed.

While Trump appears poised to keep Whitaker in his position, the President is known to frequently change his mind on personnel matters, leaving even his most senior aides sometimes uncertain about their positioning.

Trump distanced himself somewhat from Whitaker on Friday before leaving for Paris, proclaiming that he “didn’t know Matt Whitaker.” But he also praised him as “a very highly respected man” and said he believed “he’s going to do a great job.” He picked him for the position in part because he had grown to like him and trust that Whitaker’s loyalties would lie with him, sources told CNN.

“He was very, very highly thought of, and still is highly thought of, but this only comes up because anybody that works for me, they do a number on them,” Trump said.

Much of the criticism Whitaker drew stemmed from widely publicized comments he made about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which the White House should have known about.

Whitaker’s appointment quickly drew fire after his public criticism of the investigation resurfaced, particularly given that Trump passed over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for the post, taking the Mueller investigation out of his hands and placing ultimate authority in Whitaker’s.

In a 2017 CNN op-ed, Whitaker wrote that Mueller was “dangerously close to crossing” a red line following reports that Mueller was looking into Trump’s finances and called on Rosenstein to “order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation.” In a July 2017 CNN appearance, Whitaker suggested Sessions’ replacement could choke off funding to Mueller’s investigation “so low that his investigation grinds almost to a halt.”

Legal scholars, including several conservatives, also argued that Whitaker’s appointment was unconstitutional because he is not a Senate-confirmed administration official. The White House maintains it is on firm legal ground with the Whitaker appointment.

Amid the criticism, Whitaker has been settling into his new role.

At the Justice Department, Whitaker spent the weekend on the phone with the top department heads and US attorneys across the country to offer reassurance that the priorities of the Department remain the same, according to a source familiar with the matter.

He also received calls of support, including from former Attorney General John Ashcroft.