Matthew Whitaker’s rise to the top of the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday came with immediate scrutiny of his past statements, many of which display deep partisanship and unease with the Russia investigation he now oversees.
A former U.S. attorney in Iowa, Whitaker ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014 but never lost his taste for politics. He remained in Republican circles and, last year, emerged on CNN as a critic of the Russia investigation, repeatedly calling for limits to the scope of the special counsel’s probe.
Whitaker reportedly has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation after replacing Jeff Sessions, who was ousted Wednesday over his recusal from that very probe last year. He had been serving as Sessions’s chief of staff prior to his appointment Wednesday as acting attorney general.
What follow are five remarks Whitaker has made about legal issues, the Mueller probe—and even about Trump himself.
➤➤ “Even being a misogynist” doesn’t stick to Trump.
In August 2015, Whitaker expressed admiration for Donald Trump’s say-anything style on the campaign trail. Reflecting on a Republican presidential primary debate, Whitaker said Jeb Bush had done “a lot of good for himself just looking presidential and being commanding.” But he appeared particularly struck by the presidential race’s eventual winner, saying that “fundamentally the one person that probably continued to excel his brand is Trump.” Whitaker continued: “Donald Trump was who he is, he’s attracting people because of his bluntness and it doesn’t seem right now that anything sticks to him, even being a misogynist,” Whitaker said, drawing some laughter and a “whoa” from one of his fellow panelists. Whitaker joined in that laughter, and called his description of Trump a “five-dollar word.” A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on whether Whitaker, today, stands by that description of Trump. [PBS, 2015]
➤➤ Whitaker is no fan of Marbury v. Madison.
Asked in 2014 in a candidate Q&A about the role of the courts and the “worst” decisions of the Supreme Court, Whitaker said: “The courts are supposed to be the inferior branch of our three branches of government. We have unfortunately offloaded many of our tough public policy issues onto the court and they’ve decided hem. Unelected judges are deciding many of the issues of the day. There are so many (bad rulings). I would start with the idea of Marbury v. Madison. That’s probably a good place to start and the way it’s looked at the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of constitutional issues. We’ll move forward from there. All New Deal cases that were expansive of the federal government. Those would be bad. Then all the way up to the Affordable Care Act and the individual mandate.”
➤➤ Mueller’s “red line.”
Whitaker last year regularly discussed the Mueller investigation on CNN. In August 2017, a month before being named as Sessions’s top aide, Whitaker said the special counsel would be crossing a “red line” if it probed the finances of Trump and his family. “I’d like to go to the one point that needs to be made here and that is that if Bob Mueller and his small U.S. attorney’s office, as I’ve heard it described today, does go beyond the 2016 election and get into Trump Organization finances unrelated to the 2016 election and really unrelated to Russian coordination, if it even exists, I think that would be crossing a red line. I think that’s when the deputy attorney general, who’s the acting attorney general for the purpose of the [investigation], Rod Rosenstein, who I served with in the Bush administration, he needs to step in and pull the reins back on Bob Mueller is he starts to go outside the bounds of his delegation of authority.” [CNN, 2017]
➤➤ Word counts: Bible v. tax code.
During his Senate campaign in 2014, Whitaker framed himself as a small business owner based on his role as a partner at Whitaker Hagenow & Gustoff LLP, a Des Moines law firm now named Hagenow & Gustoff LLP. He called for reforming the tax code and repealing the Affordable Care Act. “The tax code now has five times, approximately, the number of words of the Bible, and none of it good news. We need fundamental tax reform. We need it now and it really is something I’ve been calling for for the last 10 months. Until we get this done, we’re going to continue to have this stagnation. And we need to repeal Obamacare. It is a wet blanket on our nation’s economy. It has to go. It is causing doubt and worry among our small business owners and our job creators,” he said during a Republican primary debate in Iowa. [Iowa Public Television, 2014]
➤➤ Washington is just too wealthy.
In a 2014 interview, Whitaker railed against what he described as the growing influence of wealth in the nation’s capital. “What we’ve seen since really the last several decades is an aggregation of power and money and unfortunately in Washington D.C. I talk about how in 1960, Detroit, Michigan, was the wealthiest metropolitan area in the United States. And unlike some of the media reports that show Iowa is the wealthiest, actually our nation’s capital is now the wealthiest metropolitan area in the United States states. It’s a trend we need to reverse. And there are all sorts of things that we need to look at. Having spent five-and-a-half years inside this federal government, I understand there’s plenty of places where we can trim.” [NBC affiliate WHOTV, 2014]