Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was involved in conversations about the scope of New York federal prosecutors’ investigation into Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, and about whether to fire one or more U.S. attorneys, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters after a closed-door meeting with Mr. Whitaker, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) said Mr. Whitaker didn’t deny—as he had in a public committee hearing last month—that Mr. Trump had called him to discuss the Cohen investigation, in which prosecutors in December implicated the president in two federal campaign-finance violations.
Mr. Nadler said that Mr. Whitaker, while serving as acting attorney general, had been “directly involved” in conversations about whether to fire U.S. attorneys, though the congressman didn’t specify which ones.
Mr. Nadler also said Mr. Whitaker had been involved in discussions about the “scope of the Southern District [of New York] attorney and his recusal” from the Cohen investigation, and whether New York prosecutors “went too far” in pursuing their campaign-finance investigation.
Mr. Nadler didn’t specify with whom Mr. Whitaker had those conversations. The House Judiciary Committee believes it has evidence that Mr. Trump asked Mr. Whitaker whether Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman could regain control of his office’s investigation into Mr. Cohen, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.
Mr. Berman is a former law partner of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and in 2016 donated to the Trump campaign. The president personally interviewed him for the U.S. attorney job, and last year he recused himself from involvement in the Cohen investigation.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, disputed parts of Mr. Nadler’s account on Wednesday, saying Mr. Whitaker didn’t confirm that he had spoken with the president about the Cohen investigation. He also said Mr. Whitaker’s conversations about firing U.S. attorneys were “normal personnel issues.”
The revelation that Mr. Whitaker was involved in conversations about the possibility of curtailing New York prosecutors’ investigation into the president’s former lawyer could propel ongoing investigations by Congress and by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether Mr. Trump sought to obstruct justice. Mr. Trump has denied doing so.
The ranking committee Republican, Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), did make one reasonable point in his ranting: Since it looks like William Barr will be confirmed as the new attorney general in a matter of days, it may not be worth getting too worked up about anything having to do with Matthew Whitaker at this point. But what Democrats are concerned about is whether in his brief time running the Justice Department, Whitaker has done anything to undermine the investigation, or tip off President Trump to its substance.
.. Democrats are trying to do two things simultaneously with this hearing in particular and their broader efforts with regard to the Mueller investigation.
- The first is to discover whether there has been any improper interference from the White House to limit the probe.
- The second is to apply enough pressure that even if Whitaker — or the White House, or William Barr — wanted to hinder Mueller, they’d decide that doing so would be too much of a risk.
.. The truth is that Democrats have probably succeeded in the latter goal, which must be spectacularly frustrating for Trump. He has made no bones about the fact that he he expects his Justice Department appointees to protect him from accountability when it comes to Russia (and anything else). He repeatedly belittled his first attorney general for recusing himself from the investigation, saying that without Jeff Sessions overseeing it and therefore able to quash it or scale it back, “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”
All evidence suggests that after pushing Sessions out, he appointed Whitaker in an acting capacity precisely because Whitaker had been publicly critical of the Mueller investigation. Yet Whitaker was under so much scrutiny on this question from the moment he took that position, he was almost certainly prevented from doing anything significant to impede Mueller. The same is likely to be true of Barr, who despite being critical of the investigation before his appointment now knows that if he really tries to protect Trump, eventually everyone will know and he’ll be disgraced.
If Trump had actually persuaded anyone to obstruct the Mueller probe on his behalf, he wouldn’t be tweeting “Witch hunt!!!” every few days. Those are the desperate cries of a man who wishes his underlings would obstruct justice on his behalf, but isn’t getting what he wants.
.. I’m sure Trump plays out an alternate history in his mind over and over, in which he appointed someone else to be attorney general at the beginning of his presidency, and that person not only never appointed a special counsel in the first place but also made sure that any questions about Russia were quietly shelved. Instead, we got Mueller conducting what seems to be a thorough and aggressive probe. No amount of evaded questions or Republican shouting at hearings or angry tweets has been able to stop it.