Despite denial, Trump said last month he knows Whitaker

CNN's Pamela Brown reports.

Posted: Nov 11, 2018 11:13 AM
Updated: Nov 11, 2018 11:34 AM

When things were particularly bad between President Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general's chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, would attend White House meetings in his place.

But Sessions did not know that Whitaker at the same time was angling for a promotion.

Whitaker, who was installed at the Justice Department by powerful White House allies, "spoke and behaved like he was attorney general," a source with knowledge of the meetings said.

Wednesday, Whitaker got the job when Trump made him acting attorney general.

Trump's move puts Whitaker in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. It has also created new controversies, with legal experts debating about the legality of the appointment and news stories featuring his past criticisms of Mueller and defense of Trump.

The transformation of Sessions from influential early backer of Trump's improbable presidential campaign to frequent target of the President's scorn is a study in the fickleness of political alliances in Washington.

On Wednesday, the attorney general received the call everyone in Washington knew was coming some day soon.

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, asked Sessions to submit his resignation, according to multiple sources briefed on the call. Sessions agreed to comply, but he wanted a few more days before the resignation would become effective. Kelly said he'd consult the President.

Soon, the sources say, top Justice officials convened on the 5th floor suite of offices for the attorney general. Eventually, there were two huddles in separate offices. Among those in Sessions' office was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, his deputy Ed O'Callaghan, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Steven Engel, who heads the Office of Legal Counsel.

A few yards away, Whitaker strategized with other aides, including Gary Barnett, now his chief of staff.

The rival huddles, which haven't been previously reported, laid bare a break in the relationship between Sessions and Whitaker that had emerged in recent weeks, after it became clear that Whitaker played a behind-the-scenes role in an aborted effort to oust Rosenstein.

A source close to Sessions says that the former attorney general realized that Whitaker was "self-dealing" after reports surfaced in September that Whitaker had spoken with Kelly and had discussed plans to become the No. 2 at the Justice Department if Rosenstein was forced to resign.

In recent months, with his relationship with the President at a new low, Sessions skipped several so-called principals meetings that he was slated to attend as a key member of the Cabinet. A source close to Sessions says that neither the attorney general nor Trump thought it was a good idea for Sessions to be at the White House, so he sent surrogates. Whitaker was one of them.

But Sessions did not realize Whitaker was having conversations with the White House about his future until the news broke in late September about Rosenstein.

On Wednesday as aides began drafting Sessions' resignation letter, the distrust for Whitaker burst into the open.

The fact that Whitaker would become acting attorney general, passing over Rosenstein suddenly raised concerns about the impact on the most high-profile investigation in the Justice Department, the Russia probe led by Mueller. The Mueller probe has been at the center of Trump's ire directed at Sessions and the Justice Department. Whitaker has made comments criticizing Mueller's investigation and Rosenstein's oversight of it, and has questioned the allegations of Russian interference.

Rosenstein and O'Callaghan, the highest-ranked officials handling day-to-day oversight of Mueller's investigation, urged Sessions to delay the effective date of his resignation.

Soon, Whitaker strode into Sessions' office and asked to speak one-on-one to the attorney general; the others left the two men alone. It was a brief conversation. Shortly after, Sessions told his huddle that his resignation would be effective that day.

O'Callaghan had tried to appeal to Sessions, noting that he hadn't heard back about whether the President would allow a delay. At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker's appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional. Someone also reminded Sessions that the last time Whitaker played a role in a purported resignation -- a few weeks earlier in September, with Rosenstein -- the plan collapsed.

Sessions never heard in person from the President -- the man who gained television fame for his catch-phrase "You're fired" doesn't actually like such confrontation and prefers to have others do the firing, people close to the President say. Kelly called Sessions a second time to tell him the President had rejected his request for a delay.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.

Whitaker at DOJ

Whitaker and Sessions didn't have a prior relationship before Sessions -- at the urging of the White House -- accepted Whitaker as his chief of staff. Sessions interviewed him and the two grew to have a good working relationship. Sessions liked him, but even if he didn't, the plan was already hatched for him to take the role, according to one source familiar with the matter.

Leonard Leo, the influential executive vice president of the Federalist Society, recommended to then-White House counsel Don McGahn that Whitaker would make a good chief of staff for Sessions.

"I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons," Leo said Friday.

"Jeff Sessions needed a reliable conservative, a strong manager, and someone who had credibility who had previously served the department," he added. "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, a 49-year-old former U.S. attorney from Iowa and former CNN contributor, is a gregarious imposing presence that fits his former life as college football tight end. His Twitter feed, which he made private in recent days, shows a picture of him weightlifting, a passion he complains he doesn't get as much time to enjoy these days.

On Thursday, his first full day as acting attorney general, and with criticism of his appointment beginning to swirl, he tried to exude a calm demeanor. He convened a late afternoon meeting with senior department officials. He kept remarks brief, saying he was proud to lead them, that they've been doing good work and to keep doing what they're doing. Another call, also brief, with US attorneys around the country followed.

On Friday, he sent his first department-wide message, thanking Sessions for his service and extolling the work of colleagues around the country. "As we move forward, I am committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans," Whitaker wrote.

Sessions' last day

The ignominious end to Sessions' tenure is a far cry from the early days of the 2016 campaign, when he became an eager surrogate. Sessions' hardline views on immigration became suffused in the rhetoric that Trump adopted.

Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Trump at a time when establishment Republicans were still staying away, and he left his safe Alabama Senate seat to take the attorney general job.

Several members of his staff also joined the President's team, helping to craft some of the harsh immigration policies that Sessions often preached from Capitol Hill and which have become a cornerstone of stump speeches that Trump regularly uses to excite his political base.

But months into the job, Trump had soured on Sessions for the sin of recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections and possible connections to the Trump campaign.

More recently, Sessions appeared at peace with the prospect of being ousted from office. He made a series of valedictory visits with law enforcement around the country, seeking to underline what he believes will be his legacy of strong support for law enforcement and efforts to reduce crime.

Sessions spent Election Day on Tuesday surrounded by what he loves: cops and sweets.

He visited the FBI's laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, where officials warmly greeted him and provided a briefing on their latest capabilities.

Over a plate of Milano cookies, he was an engaged questioner asking a scientist about DNA identification and how it has affected guilty pleas in court.

Later, when he arrived in the cafeteria for lunch, a room full of FBI personnel and local police officers training in the National Academy rose to their feet as he entered the room. He went around from table to table, shaking hands, posing for pictures -- soaking up the moment and capping it off with vanilla ice cream with sprinkles.

Roughly 24 hours later, he was out of a job.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 660942

Reported Deaths: 12556
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion905601638
Lake48352874
Allen35762635
Hamilton32026396
St. Joseph29865511
Elkhart25350414
Vanderburgh21225377
Tippecanoe19977200
Johnson16319356
Porter15938269
Hendricks15801300
Clark11928180
Madison11730316
Vigo11578229
Monroe10312161
Delaware9830179
LaPorte9755196
Howard9047196
Kosciusko8549109
Bartholomew7440147
Warrick7403150
Hancock7394130
Floyd7189169
Wayne6630191
Grant6422157
Morgan6075125
Boone607288
Dubois5895111
Dearborn546866
Cass543399
Henry541793
Marshall5417104
Noble508578
Jackson464366
Shelby460190
Lawrence4179111
Gibson400881
Harrison398763
Clinton395053
Montgomery386283
DeKalb384678
Miami356763
Knox356485
Whitley348936
Huntington342376
Steuben337855
Wabash330876
Putnam329459
Ripley326861
Adams322549
Jasper315443
White297252
Jefferson294473
Daviess285396
Fayette271456
Decatur270488
Greene261280
Posey260531
Wells257674
Scott249950
Clay240844
LaGrange240770
Randolph225576
Spencer217030
Jennings214744
Washington210427
Sullivan203139
Fountain201142
Starke187951
Owen181953
Fulton178237
Jay177628
Carroll176418
Perry173235
Orange171150
Rush164322
Vermillion160242
Franklin159335
Tipton146141
Parke138815
Pike127432
Blackford120627
Pulaski106444
Newton96531
Brown94939
Benton91813
Crawford90313
Martin80014
Warren75513
Switzerland7537
Union67110
Ohio53211
Unassigned0431

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 966154

Reported Deaths: 17237
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1116881202
Cuyahoga953321735
Hamilton73102963
Montgomery47187886
Summit40041955
Butler35377468
Lucas35149761
Stark29267838
Warren22334274
Lorain21938389
Mahoning19373541
Lake18335305
Clermont18304210
Delaware16385135
Licking14923200
Fairfield14476157
Trumbull14270461
Greene13536213
Medina13327218
Clark12210335
Wood11481193
Portage10958159
Allen10761235
Richland10236205
Miami9999189
Muskingum8139129
Columbiana8094182
Pickaway8022101
Tuscarawas8012235
Marion7973137
Wayne7843219
Erie6852184
Ross6114136
Geauga6036128
Hancock5973112
Ashtabula5928144
Scioto5911104
Lawrence522474
Union509752
Darke5021124
Belmont490189
Huron4776117
Jefferson4770108
Sandusky475595
Seneca4648103
Athens461232
Washington459387
Mercer4581101
Auglaize454898
Shelby440769
Knox400586
Putnam3982101
Madison391447
Ashland378395
Fulton377564
Defiance3706102
Brown368842
Crawford356196
Logan352959
Preble352471
Clinton339364
Highland326855
Ottawa322367
Williams301477
Jackson288556
Guernsey285734
Champaign285146
Fayette267644
Perry267143
Morrow258925
Henry245465
Hardin243656
Holmes2430104
Coshocton233847
Van Wert228849
Gallia221346
Adams215432
Pike214428
Wyandot209053
Hocking193449
Carroll180228
Paulding159623
Meigs134637
Noble128442
Monroe116036
Morgan100534
Harrison100132
Vinton76615
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