Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special-counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Donald Trump as part of that investigation.
Since stepping into his new role Wednesday, Whitaker has faced questions – principally from Democrats – about whether he should recuse himself from the Russia investigation, given that he has written opinion pieces about the investigation and is a friend and political ally of a grand jury witness.
On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he does not plan to take himself off the Russia case. They also said he is deeply skeptical of any effort to force the president’s testimony through a subpoena.
Special counsel Robert Mueller III has been negotiating for months with Trump’s attorneys over the terms of a possible interview of the president. Central to those discussions has been the idea that Mueller could, if negotiations failed, subpoena the president. If Whitaker were to take the threat of a subpoena off the table, that could alter the equilibrium between the two sides and significantly reduce the chances that the president ever sits for an interview.
At the Justice Department, ethics officials typically review the past work of senior leaders to see whether they have any financial or personal conflicts that would preclude them from overseeing particular cases.
In the past, senior Justice Department officials have tended to follow such advice, but they are rarely required to do so, according to officials familiar with the process.
“The consistent tradition, through administrations of both political parties, has been for DOJ’s senior leaders to consult career ethics officials on questions of recusal,” said Matthew Axelrod, a senior department official during the Obama administration. “Here, to avoid irreparable damage to the institution’s integrity, it is crucial that the normal process be followed.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Officials there have said Whitaker will follow the regular procedure in handling any ethics issues that arise.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey