Trump downplays Whitaker ties amid criticism

President Donald Trump sought to distance himself from the Justice Department official he just named as acti...

Posted: Nov 10, 2018 5:14 AM
Updated: Nov 10, 2018 5:14 AM

President Donald Trump sought to distance himself from the Justice Department official he just named as acting attorney general in the face of mounting criticism about the legality and propriety of his appointment.

"I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said of the new acting attorney general, saying he hired him because he had worked for since-dismissed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "He was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General Sessions."

Continents and regions

Donald Trump

Eastern Europe

Europe

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Government departments and authorities

Government organizations - US

Investigations

Jeff Sessions

Justice departments

Law and legal system

Matt Whitaker

Political Figures - US

Politics

Russia

Russia meddling investigation

US Department of Justice

US federal departments and agencies

US federal government

White House

Celebrities

Ivanka Trump

The President's comments are at odds with the relationship Trump has forged with Whitaker in recent months, even as his opinion of Sessions continued to sour. Whitaker has been at the White House dozens of times, including in meetings with Trump, and the two have spoken by phone on several occasions, including on the day that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was expected to be fired.

And in an October 11 interview on Fox News, Trump made clear he did, in fact, know Whitaker well.

"I can tell you Matt Whitaker's a great guy. I know Matt Whitaker," he said.

Whitaker was not hired as Sessions' chief of staff by virtue of any pre-existing relationship with Sessions, but instead because White House officials believed Whitaker's loyalties would lie at the White House and not with the beleaguered attorney general, sources said.

And over the last year, Whitaker has told friends about his growing relationship with Trump. The President knew that he had played football and the tall, brawny former US attorney fit the image Trump liked, according to people familiar with their conversations, far more than the diminutive Sessions, whom Trump mocked.

"He looks like the kind of guy who sits at the head of a table," a source familiar with the matter said of Whitaker.

Questions arise

Even as he claimed on Friday not to know Whitaker, it was clear Trump maintained an affinity for him, praising his qualifications for the job as he insisted Whitaker was being unfairly maligned.

Some legal scholars -- including George Conway, the husband of Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway -- said they thought Whitaker's appointment is unconstitutional because he is not a Senate-confirmed official. Other critics have slammed Trump's decision to appoint Whitaker as acting attorney general over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein because the move puts Whitaker in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, which Whitaker had been publicly critical of.

Trump insisted Friday that he had not spoken with Whitaker about the Mueller investigation.

"I didn't speak to Matt Whitaker about it. I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said.

The President's move to distance himself from Whitaker is a familiar refrain Trump has used when associates of his have become embroiled in controversy.

When federal prosecutors targeted his longtime former attorney Michael Cohen, Trump insisted Cohen handled only a "tiny, tiny fraction" of his legal work. Before that, he claimed that his indicted former campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked for him for "a very short period of time." And shortly before ousting his chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who also helmed his campaign, Trump maintained Bannon "came on very late."

Still, the President praised Whitaker as "very highly thought of" and said that Whitaker is only taking heat because "anybody that works for me, they do a number on him."

"Matt Whitaker is a very smart man, he is a very respected man in the law enforcement community, top of the line," Trump said. "He's acting, I think he'll do a very good job and we'll see what happens."

In an email to Department of Justice staff on Friday, Whitaker vowed to lead "a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans."

Sense of concern

Trump's comments came as a growing sense of concern developed inside the White House over the negative reaction to Whitaker being tapped as the acting chief law enforcement official. Several senior officials said they were surprised by the criticism and believe it could potentially jeopardize his chances to remain in the post if it continues to dominate headlines.

It was not widely known among the staff that he had commented repeatedly on the special counsel's investigation in interviews and on television -- an irony given that Whitaker's TV appearances helped him land his job at the Justice Department and people close to Trump encouraged Whitaker to keep up his TV appearances to draw Trump's attention.

Whitaker was tapped by the White House to serve as Sessions' chief of staff in September 2017, with sources describing then-White House counsel Don McGahn as the person behind the hiring.

McGahn was drawn to Whitaker because he had a stalwart reputation in right-wing legal circles and because the White House wanted someone who was competent, could mind Sessions and could "keep things on the rails" at the Justice Department.

Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, said he recommended Whitaker for that post.

"I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons," Leo told CNN. "Jeff Sessions needed a reliable conservative, a strong manager, and someone who had credibility who had previously served the department. Whitaker was a very good former US attorney and is a very good manager. He's a no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of guy."

Whitaker and White House chief of staff John Kelly developed a close relationship too. Kelly would often call Whitaker to convey when Trump was unhappy with something at the Justice Department or with Sessions in particular, and another source said Kelly and Whitaker were "cut from the same cloth."

Whitaker also worked to forge a relationship with the President's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner during trips to the White House, understanding they were key to moving up in Trump's eyes.

George Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general who is a Sessions ally and familiar with his senior staff, described Whitaker as a "good lawyer" with "good political skills and instincts" and said he had grown close to the White House.

Terwilliger said Whitaker's position had put him in contact with the White House "where he's held in pretty high regard."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 666516

Reported Deaths: 12726
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion912711659
Lake48687890
Allen36102644
Hamilton32445398
St. Joseph30306514
Elkhart25510420
Vanderburgh21326382
Tippecanoe20220205
Johnson16466363
Porter16068281
Hendricks15944302
Clark12060182
Madison11799323
Vigo11685234
Monroe10419164
Delaware9891179
LaPorte9831199
Howard9112201
Kosciusko8597111
Bartholomew7522147
Hancock7462134
Warrick7451153
Floyd7263173
Wayne6661192
Grant6462158
Boone616691
Morgan6129128
Dubois5936112
Dearborn551270
Cass5485100
Marshall5451105
Henry542995
Noble513178
Jackson465567
Shelby463391
Lawrence4195113
Gibson405185
Harrison403265
Clinton397553
Montgomery391684
DeKalb387478
Miami358263
Knox357885
Whitley351238
Huntington349477
Steuben340055
Putnam333960
Wabash333176
Ripley327962
Adams325449
Jasper319143
White298152
Jefferson296274
Daviess285996
Fayette272756
Decatur271688
Greene262680
Posey261432
Wells259075
Scott251850
LaGrange242470
Clay241644
Randolph226077
Spencer219430
Jennings216744
Washington213027
Sullivan203739
Fountain202842
Starke189951
Owen183654
Fulton179737
Jay178728
Carroll176919
Perry174036
Orange171451
Rush165622
Vermillion161543
Franklin159935
Tipton149541
Parke140216
Pike128533
Blackford120627
Pulaski107644
Newton96832
Brown95340
Benton92413
Crawford92213
Martin80314
Warren75914
Switzerland7558
Union67510
Ohio54211
Unassigned0427

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 977736

Reported Deaths: 17501
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1129551251
Cuyahoga968561881
Hamilton738821067
Montgomery47506923
Summit40668831
Butler35827531
Lucas35779720
Stark29581826
Warren22574275
Lorain22190424
Mahoning19578551
Lake18545332
Clermont18519205
Delaware16597121
Licking15089194
Fairfield14644188
Trumbull14423424
Greene13659221
Medina13517237
Clark12376256
Wood11656170
Portage11127172
Allen10820216
Richland10372188
Miami10059194
Muskingum8238117
Columbiana8168210
Pickaway8094111
Tuscarawas8075232
Marion8020127
Wayne7933199
Erie6961146
Ross6173132
Geauga6114142
Hancock6030121
Scioto600488
Ashtabula5998154
Lawrence527586
Union516341
Darke5052116
Belmont4999137
Huron4859108
Jefferson4836137
Sandusky4798112
Washington474396
Seneca4734111
Athens466149
Mercer459781
Auglaize456582
Shelby442679
Knox4054105
Putnam400593
Madison395455
Fulton383161
Ashland382683
Brown374852
Defiance373788
Crawford360098
Logan357373
Preble353987
Clinton342455
Highland328451
Ottawa325371
Williams303568
Jackson291846
Champaign290949
Guernsey288845
Perry271148
Fayette269943
Morrow261437
Henry247861
Hardin247359
Holmes244497
Coshocton240756
Van Wert230157
Gallia223938
Adams218239
Pike217228
Wyandot212450
Hocking195054
Carroll182143
Paulding161034
Meigs136031
Noble129233
Monroe117237
Morgan102120
Harrison100731
Vinton76613
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
29° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 18°
Feels Like: 24°
Angola
Clear
27° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 19°
Feels Like: 21°
Huntington
Clear
30° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 20°
Feels Like: 26°
Fort Wayne
Clear
29° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 24°
Lima
Partly Cloudy
26° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 20°
Feels Like: 16°
Sunny Sunday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events