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Why I'm Not Overly Concerned About Matthew Whitaker

[ Posted Monday, November 19th, 2018 – 17:23 PST ]

It is rare that I leave myself open to being accused of being too Pollyannaish or otherwise sticking my head in the sand, but today I feel there's definitely a risk of this. Because I am not all that concerned about our new Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker -- although I do realize there are plenty of others who are. But I think that while the pushback against his appointment is necessary and should be pursued by Democrats as vigorously as possible, in the end the real fight is going to be over the next actual attorney general, not the acting one we have now.

If the Whitaker appointment had not been controversial -- if it hadn't followed the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions, in other words -- then perhaps I would be more worried about him. If Washington as a whole had taken a ho-hum attitude towards his appointment, then there would probably be lots to worry about. To put this another way: Who knows what he would have gotten up to if he hadn't felt the heat of public opinion?

But so far the pushback has been so strong and so relentless that this is simply no longer an option. For every minute that Whitaker sits in the big chair at the Department of Justice, he is going to be living life under a very powerful microscope. Every single thing he does is going to be critically examined either now or in a very short time, when Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in January. Whitaker now knows this. He is fully aware that his every move will be critically examined by Democrats, whether in real time or in retrospect, before House investigative committees. This should serve to put severe limits on the amount of mischief he even attempts to get up to.

The big fear, of course, is that Whitaker will somehow either severely curtain or even shut down the investigation being run by Bob Mueller. He has publicly spoken about the possibility of starving the investigation of funding, so that it "grinds to a halt." He has already telegraphed his tactics to the public, in other words. By doing so, he has given his critics a road map of what to look for in the next few months, though.

The biggest hurdle to holding Whitaker accountable for trying to curtail the Mueller investigation -- ironically -- might just turn out to be Mueller himself. Mueller's team is one of the tightest operations Washington has ever seen, because they just don't leak, period. There has never been the "inside scoop" of what's going on in the investigation, leaving the entire media universe to have to rely solely on speculation and whatever court and grand jury filings become public. Mueller's team is incredibly tight-lipped, and if they remain so even during a direct attack on their investigation, it might take more time for people (even Democrats closely watching things) to realize that Mueller is being undermined. But again, it's not that long until January, when Democrats will regain subpoena power in Congress. So even if Whitaker did try something underhanded and Mueller's team refused to leak about it, eventually everything will come out in the wash.

I think the White House has been surprised at the level of pushback Whitaker's appointment is getting. President Trump himself reacted by quickly backpedalling away from Whitaker himself (the old "I hardly know him" routine, in other words). Trump has also pointed out numerous times that he thinks Whitaker is "politically astute," which I take to mean both Trump and Whitaker know the political landmines ahead should they try anything sneaky.

What the strong opposition to Whitaker has probably guaranteed is that he'll have a very short tenure in office. Trump's easiest way out of the problem of Whitaker is to deflect everyone's attention by making a real nomination for attorney general. Whomever he names is going to immediately become the focus of the spotlight. The Senate confirmation process will begin, and all the hue and cry will then center on the new guy or gal. Trump certainly doesn't lack for controversial choices, in this regard. He could nominate Rudy Giuliani, for instance. Giuliani is a lightning rod for controversy, which would definitely make everyone in the media forget Whitaker's name. And Giuliani is not even the most controversial person Trump could name -- there are others who would raise an even bigger outcry.

Trump knows full well that the minute he names someone to run the Justice Department that the Whitaker controversy will get shoved onto the back burner. Trump manipulates the media in similar ways on at least a weekly basis, after all. It's the easy way out -- ignore the current fight, and go out and pick an even bigger fight to distract everyone else.

What all of this adds up to, for me -- and I do sincerely apologize in advance if I turn out to be horribly wrong about this -- is Whitaker occupying no more than a mere caretaker role as acting attorney general. If Bob Mueller is smart, he'll just stall for a few months until a new attorney general is confirmed by the Senate, which would avoid the problem of Whitaker even being able to meddle all that much in the first place. In the meantime, Whitaker's ever step will be examined so closely that he'll be effectively reined in.

You'll note that one of the big reasons I'm not too worried is that the Democrats are already doing a great job of holding Whitaker's feet to the fire. They're legally challenging his appointment on constitutional grounds, they're gearing up for the upcoming House committee investigations, and they are making no secret that they'll be digging into every single thing he does while he's in charge. Democrats cannot let up on this pressure for an instant -- they must be relentless in holding Whitaker accountable for the next few months.

In January, Democrats will take charge of the House. But there will also be two more Republicans in the Senate as well -- making it that much easier for Trump to get a permanent replacement confirmed. My guess is that Trump will soon announce who he will be appointing, and then make the official appointment just in time for the new Senate to begin immediate work on it next year. If things go smoothly for Trump, this would mean a new attorney general by February or early March, most likely.

With this limited schedule and an incredible amount of oversight already happening, I think Whitaker will be adequately constrained in what he is able to do during his time at the head of the Justice Department. I do hope I'm not proven foolishly optimistic in this opinion, but for now I'm not overly concerned about Whitaker's tenure in office. To tell you the truth, what worries me more is who Trump will name to replace him, because he or she could wind up being much, much worse.

 

Correction:

When I wrote this article yesterday, I did a quick web search on the name "Whitaker" because I didn't know his first name. I either saw a news article about a "Michael Whitaker" or I just had a momentary lapse of reason and read his name wrong. Either way, I wrote this entire article (with headline and a subsequent tweet) about "Michael" Whitaker.

This, obviously, was wrong. The newly-appointed acting attorney general's name is actually Matthew Whitaker. There is no real excuse for me to give, here -- I just flat-out blew it. My apologies for my mistake, both to Acting Attorney General Whitaker himself and to all my readers. There's no excuse for shoddy research. Mea culpa maxima. The article has now been corrected.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

15 Comments on “Why I'm Not Overly Concerned About Matthew Whitaker”

  1. [1] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW-

    You make a very good case. My primary worry is that other Trump scams may fly under the radar while everybody is focused on the Whitaker gambit. Trump ha a talent for mass media 3 Card Monte.

  2. [2] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    Agreed, for the most-part. I knew Beauregard was dog meat the moment the tears were mopped up at the White House--post midterms. I assumed also that Whitaker was merely someone Trump threw at the wall to see if his machinations would go unchecked. However, one thing has Trump has now, which I'm guessing he didn't with Sessions is, 'a fly on the wall' of Mueller's office.
    Trump's twitter-twatterings seem to taken on a more specific and directed tone since Whitaker flapped into the building and no doubt demanded a summary of the investigation to date.
    So, while Whitaker may resemble a neutered tabby more than a crouching Tiger, he's no doubt serving his master's needs.

    C.W, I have to agree with you, the person who follows him could well be the long prophesised hatchet man. With the Dems holding subpoena power in January, I'm sensing the Mueller probe will go on unfettered, whether the findings, whole or in part, ever see the light of day, is another thing entirely.

    The other thing worthy of note is, Mueller and his fellow probers are such a hot potato in Washington at the moment, anyone doing Trump's dirty work would have to see such a role as political suicide...given everything we know about Whitaker, his career suggests that he's ambitious beyond the dreams of avarice--hardly kind of civil servant that would willingly hang himself on the petard that is Mueller's investigation.

    Giuliani, well he's just the ticket if one is ever in need of a busy idiot, he's totally unconcerned with minutia such as right, wrong, honour and shame.

    LL&P

  3. [3] 
    neilm wrote:

    JTC [2] I agree.

    I see Whitaker's primary role is to find out for Trump what Mueller knows and what he is planning.Obviously this knowledge will be useful to plan a counter strategy, if there is anybody in or near Trump with the ability to plan a legal strategy (his first one was a disaster as it let the WH Council talk freely to Mueller without even a post meeting debriefing).

    However it is most likely that Trump just wants to sleep again at night - he knows the hounds are off the chains now the Dems have the House, and it is killing him.

    Remember when Rudi was confidently predicting that the Mueller investigation would be over by Christmas (2017)?

    Trump's big worry is 2020. If he loses the Presidency, the Senate and the House then the fear that Republican politicians have for him will evaporate and the knives will come out. Half the country is baying for his blood and that of his hideous brood (obviously the kid is not included, nor Tiffany, whose mother is obviously the only intelligent person in the whole clan). They want to see convictions and jail time, and this isn't a "Lock Her Up" chant that goes away after the election, this is a payback for the damage he has done to our nation and the grand theft he is committing leveraging his position.

    For me, the best outcome will be two more years of the Mueller investigation, with complete silence except for indictments and Grand Jury testimony. This is Trump's nightmare, long may it continue.

  4. [4] 
    neilm wrote:

    Every time I hear that Trump has tweeted something angry between Midnight and 7am, I feel that, while I've got a general level of anger at the damage he is doing to America, the fear and anger that is consuming him is far worse. He is in a hole and it is killing him inside.

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Neilm-

    Intelligence gathering may be the intent, but
    I don't think Mueller or his team are going to immediately reveal their roadmap to their new "boss" who they likely view as an illegitimate, or - at the very least - a very questionable appointee. The under new management House of Reps is going to back Mueller if he chooses to resist, which I think he will....and at least some courts are likely to jump in against Whitaker too. Trying an end run just to get some intelligence of dubious value is a risky Make My Day move for Trump, as it just puts another round of Obstruction of Justice ammo in Mueller's clip.

    Have you ever seen any re-runs of the old FBI show? They all end the same way - the perp fails to freeze and goes down in a hail of lead. :)

  6. [6] 
    neilm wrote:

    TS[5] - correct me if I'm wrong, but can't the acting AG go to Mueller and ask for a summary of the status of the investigation and the strategy and plans for the future?

    Isn't Mueller required to respond fully as part of his role as a temporary contractor of the DoJ?

  7. [7] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    I totally disagree with all of you on this matter it seems. I think this is a massive problem that hopefully the courts will rectify as quickly as possible. CW, you say that Whitaker is under a microscope now, but do you know everything that he does day to day in his new role? Nope? Well, neither does anyone else according to Sen. Richard Blumenthal who is one of the senators who filed the lawsuit claiming Whitaker must be removed. Whitaker can do massive damage, even take criminal actions to derail the investigation and he would no doubt be pardoned by Trump. The Republicans refuse to protect Mueller’s investigation and there is no reason to believe that they would take any action other than clutching at their pearls if Whitaker acts to protect Trump and claim that the damage has been done and there is nothing that they can do about it now! Hopefully the courts will rule Rosenstein should be made acting AG and any actions taken by Whitaker in his short time as acting AG must be voided.

  8. [8] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Mueller and his high-priced crew have been at it almost a year and a half. If he were capable of living up to Weigantian expectations (impeachment, etc.), I'm betting it would already be a done deal.

  9. [9] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    neilm,

    TS[5] - correct me if I'm wrong, but can't the acting AG go to Mueller and ask for a summary of the status of the investigation and the strategy and plans for the future?

    Isn't Mueller required to respond fully as part of his role as a temporary contractor of the DoJ?

    You are correct! He could also demand Mueller hand over all of his work for Whitaker to review. Mueller refusing to abide by a direct order would be grounds for Mueller’s immediate termination. Yes, stopping the investigation would prove to be a massive headache for Trump, but it isn’t nearly as bad for Trump as if Mueller was allowed to complete the investigation!

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Program Note (correction) Written Before I Even Read Your Comments Here

    When I wrote this article yesterday, I did a quick web search on the name "Whitaker" because I didn't know his first name. I either saw a news article about a "Michael Whitaker" or I just had a momentary lapse of reason and read his name wrong. Either way, I wrote this entire article (with headline and a subsequent tweet) about "Michael" Whitaker.

    This, obviously, was wrong. The newly-appointed acting attorney general's name is actually Matthew Whitaker. There is no real excuse for me to give, here -- I just flat-out blew it. My apologies for my mistake, both to Acting Attorney General Whitaker himself and to all my readers. There's no excuse for shoddy research. Mea culpa maxima. The article has now been corrected.

    -CW

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    TheStig [1] -

    "mass media 3 Card Monte" -- now there's a handy phrase! Well done!

    :-)

    -CW

  12. [12] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Neilm-6

    Whitaker may ask, but he may not receive in as timely a manner as he might like. Or as completely as he might like.

    As a lawyer and Marine infantry officer Mueller should know a thing or two about delaying actions, playing for time, chain of command and the obligations of duty.

    If Mueller believes that Whitaker was improperly appointed than any decisions Whitaker takes could invalidate Mueller's investigation and compromise rule of law. Mueller may well conclude it is his duty to resist, either overtly challenging Whitaker's authority, or simply slowing things up by doing everything exactly by the book.

    I don't completely discount the possibility that Mueller might simply resign his appointment, but I don't think he wants that to be the last act of his career. He strikes me as a steely eyed fighter who you do not want to back into a corner.

    From Mueller's bronze star citation:

    “With complete disregard for his own safety, he then skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous area and, on one occasion, personally led a fire team across the fire-swept area terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward on the friendly lines."

  13. [13] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    James T Canuck [2] -

    Good point about Trump now being informed better on what's going on.

    And as for who will take the job, you're spot on there, too. Didja notice how fast Lindsey Graham expressed no interest whatsoever, after months of speculation that he might want the job? Giuliani as AG would scare me, that's for sure. But what scares me even more is the thought that I've overlooked some possible Trump choice who could be much much worse...

    ListenWhenYouHear [7] -

    Yeah, I am haunted by the thought that I truly am seeing this through far-too-rosy glasses. You might prove to be right in the end. I also hope the courts get involved very quickly, and I shuddered when I read your bit about Trump possibly pardoning Whitaker, because I hadn't even considered that possibility.

    C. R. Stucki [8] -

    See the bit above about Mueller not leaking. Nobody knows -- good or bad -- what Mueller's going to come up with. For historical perspective, look into the length of other special counsels or independent counsels -- some of them took many years to finish. So far, Mueller's investigation is about par for the course, if he wraps it up next spring, say.

    OK, made it to the end. Whew! Nobody noticed my goof-up with his name! We're all still getting used to the new guy, I suppose...

    :-)

    -CW

  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    New program note is now up:

    http://www.chrisweigant.com/2018/11/20/program-note-68/

    Sorry, no new column today... gotta deal with the car...

    -CW

  15. [15] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    [8] C.R.S...'Mueller and his high-priced crew have been at it almost a year and a half.'

    As opposed to the four plus years Ken Starr and his army of expensive lawyers spent fruitlessly trying to catch-out the Clintons?

    After nearly eight years of ceaseless investigation into Whitewater related matters, a grand total of 15 people spoke to about 40 crimes. Mueller, in what amounts to less than a quarter of that time, has five people stitched up for almost 80 crimes (not including the 12 Ruskies and their hundred or so indictments).

    So, in the big scheme of things, Mueller is orchestrating a well-oiled investigative machine. Mueller has yet to deal with the nucleus of the Trump group, the very people whose actions Bannon referred to as "borderline treason". Bear in mind, Starr never did dig up enough dirt on the Clintons to warrant indictment. My trick knee tells me Mueller's probe and Starr's will differ on two counts: time to conclude and outcome for the target.

    We all know Trump is as bent as a Soviet sickle and too vain to think laws don't apply the same to him as to others, seems his daughter is likewise afflicted. When his base starts baying at rallies, "lock her up", they might as well be referring to Ivanka...she seems to be guilty of the same sin as Clinton--vis, Emails.

    LL&P

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