While the rest of us were still counting votes and trying to figure out the ramifications of the 2018 midterm elections, Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. When I wrote that the Mueller race would resume once the midterms were over, I had no idea that it would happen so quickly.
But Trump didn’t just fire Sessions: He named Matt Whitaker, who has been serving as Sessions’ chief of staff, as acting attorney general. As has now been confirmed, Whitaker will take over supervision of the Mueller investigation from Rod Rosenstein.
As this news broke, Rep. Ted Lieu made an important observation. He said that normally the line of succession would lead to the deputy attorney general (in this case, Rod Rosenstein) being elevated to acting attorney general until a nominee was confirmed. So it’s obvious that Trump bypassed those protocols to put Whitaker in charge of the Mueller investigation.
Since the president has been hinting at the possibility of getting rid of Rosenstein for a while now, this move doesn’t come as a big surprise. But it does point to the rather meteoric rise of Matt Whitaker. He had previously served as chief of staff to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa during the Bush administration. Then in 2014, he lost the Republican primary for the Iowa senate seat won by Joni Ernst. During the course of that campaign, he became good friends with Sam Clovis, who also ran in the primary and is now a grand jury witness in the Mueller investigation.
In August 2017 Whitaker wrote an opinion piece for CNN titled, “Mueller’s Investigation of Trump is Going Too Far,” in which he criticized the special prosecutor for looking into the president’s finances. A little more than a month later, he was serving as the attorney general’s chief of staff. Since then there have been rumors of him replacing Don McGahn as White House counsel and Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general. Peter Baker and Katie Benner summarized his role at the Department of Justice.
Mr. Whitaker’s ascendance to the top of the Justice Department shows how much loyalty means to Mr. Trump. The president has long regarded Mr. Whitaker as his eyes and ears inside a department that he considers an enemy institution.
While serving as a CNN commentator, Whitaker defended Don, Jr.’s meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower, suggested that one way to stop the Mueller investigation would be to deny them funds and said that the appointment of Bob Mueller wasn’t appropriate in the first place. He also tweeted an article that referred to the investigation as a “lynch mob.” Of course, there’s also this, which probably endeared him to Trump:
New acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker was the previous head of something called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a research outfit mostly devoted to investigating Hillary Clinton
— David Freedlander (@freedlander) November 7, 2018
So, while under criminal investigation, Trump has fired his attorney general and replaced him with a loyalist who has criticized the special counsel. The country just took another step towards the precipice of a constitutional crisis. Let’s hope that the next move comes from Robert Mueller.