Breaking bad: Low-grade right-wing hack is now our nation's leading law enforcement officer

Diabolical scheme or screw-up? Matt Whitaker is a surprise pick as acting attorney general, and not in a good way

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 9, 2018 9:20AM (EST)

Matt Whitaker (AP/Salon)
Matt Whitaker (AP/Salon)

Less than 24 hours after the polls had closed in the midterm elections -- and immediately after President Trump had delivered one of his most petulant press conference tantrums ever -- the word went forth that Trump had finally rid himself of hated Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the man whose only crime against him was to follow the rules. It's been obvious since the day Sessions made clear that he held to the old-fashioned notion that, in order to function as the highest law enforcement official in the country, his personal reputation and appearance of integrity were more important than fealty to the president, his days were numbered.

Trump tried hard to get him to quit but Sessions refused to leave his dream job until he had remade the country into Alabama, circa 1952. He made a good stab at it, even gratuitously granting police even more power, as one last slap in the face to civil libertarians, on his way out the door. But Trump's ego just couldn't allow Sessions to stay in the job, no matter how skillfully and efficiently he was carrying out the president's agenda.

Trump didn't do the normal thing and put the deputy attorney general in charge until a new person could be confirmed by the Senate. Of course he didn't. He named a completely unqualified toady by the name of Matthew Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions' chief of staff for the past year. Nobody seems to know exactly how he came to have that particular job, but what we know is that Whitaker was a small-time political player from Iowa who once served as a U.S. attorney and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in the 2014 midterms. More recently he was a crony of Sam Clovis, the Iowa politico who worked on the Trump campaign, got himself all caught up in the Russia investigation and had to resign his sinecure at the Department of Agriculture.

Whitaker has also worked as a sole practitioner for a right-wing, dark-money-funded organization called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), where he disseminated "legal opinions" in the media in support of Republican politics. Clovis reportedly advised him to go to New York and become a Trump defender on TV in order to get noticed by the president so he could get a judicial appointment. CNN hired him, naturally.

In other words, Whitaker is a political hack, and not a particularly high-level one. But he apparently impressed Trump with his extreme sycophancy, so he went directly from guest hits on CNN to being the attorney general's chief of staff. And now he is the acting attorney general of the United States.

This shouldn't be too surprising, really. Recall that Trump wanted to make his personal pilot the head of the FAA. He brought in his totally inexperienced son-in-law to run his Middle East policy and much else. His daughter is a senior staffer. He liked the White House physician and tried to appoint him as secretary of Veterans Affairs. That's how things work in Trumpworld.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Whitaker spent his time in the media during the summer of 2017 vociferously defending Trump against Robert Mueller's investigation which he is now overseeing. David Corn of Mother Jones reported on a radio interview in which Whitaker claimed that the president has unlimited power over the Justice Department:

“There is no case for obstruction of justice because the president has all the power of the executive and delegates that to people like the FBI director and the attorney general…The president could and has in our nation’s history said stop investigating this person or please investigate this other person.”

Referring to the Comey firing, he said “There’s really nothing here ... This is power that is completely vested in the president … If he wanted to he could have told Jim [Comey] to stop investigating former [Defense Intelligence Agency] director Flynn. And he didn’t … I’m sure he made his preference known. Quite frankly, he’s president of the United States. He can do that.”

The Daily Beast reported that Whitaker has stated unequivocally that there was no collusion during the 2016 Trump campaign:

“The truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign. There was interference by the Russians into the election, but that was not collusion with the campaign. That’s where the left seems to be combining those two issues.The last thing they want right now is for the truth to come out, and for the fact that there’s not a single piece of evidence that demonstrates that the Trump campaign had any illegal or any improper relationships with the Russians. It’s that simple ... The real Russian ties were with Hillary Clinton.

According to CNN's Andrew Kaczynski, who gathered many of these quotes, Whitaker has also already concluded there was no obstruction of justice either:

"Let's assume that the President asked him to stop investigating Flynn. That doesn't rise to the level of obstruction of justice and it doesn't sound to me, based on what's been reported, that Jim Comey, as he sat there, believed that the President was telling him to stop the investigation."

Let's just say that his position on the Mueller probe couldn't be any clearer.

The Washington Post reported that two people close to Whitaker said he does not plan to recuse himself from the Russia case. They also said he likely won't approve any presidential subpoena, which undoubtedly has made Rudy Giuliani very happy. Who needs the aggravation?

But perhaps Whitaker can be persuaded to rethink that by someone he trusts, that being himself:

That may be the most sensible thing he's said about this entire matter.

CNN reported late on Thursday that the White House is surprised by all the blowback and starting to get worried. Trump staffers had no idea Whitaker was anything more than a cheap flack who'd been flapping his lips all over the media about the Mueller investigation for months before he mysteriously became Sessions' right-hand man:

It was not widely known among White House staff that he'd commented repeatedly on the special counsel's investigation in interviews and on television -- which is ironic given that this is what drew President Donald Trump to him and raises continued questions over the depth of the administration's vetting process.

That machine is as well-oiled as ever.

There has been much anticipation that the Mueller investigation is coming to a head. Something may have even happened already. But you have to wonder if this man Whitaker is going to end up going the Anthony Scaramucci route. (That is, his tenure in the administration could be very short.) It kind of feels that way.

The question is how much damage this ill-fated acting A.G. can do before he exits the scene. (He already got to work issuing a new and probably unlawful order that requires asylum seekers to apply only at authorized ports of entry.) If nothing else, Whitaker will have been briefed on all the details of the Mueller investigation, and has undoubtedly already shared every single one of them with Donald Trump. That's what he's there for. It's all right out in the open.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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