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Whitaker Doesn’t Plan to Recuse Himself From Mueller Probe, Source Says

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Whitaker Doesn’t Plan to Recuse Himself From Mueller Probe, Source Says

  • He’d consult ethics officials if issue arose, person says
  • Democrats are citing Whitaker’s past criticism of inquiry
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Matthew Whitaker, President Donald Trump’s new acting attorney general, has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, despite having openly criticized his Russia probe, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Whitaker would, however, consult Justice Department ethics officials if a particular matter arose, said the person, who asked to remain anonymous speaking about the sensitive issue.

Democrats have demanded that Whitaker step back from Mueller’s continuing investigation based on his past criticism of the probe. Trump named Whitaker to run the Justice Department temporarily after ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday.

As Mueller’s new boss, Whitaker has significant power to hobble or even halt the investigation that Trump has long called a “witch hunt.” Mueller is probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, whether Trump or any of his associates conspired in the meddling and whether Trump obstructed justice.

Former Justice Department officials agreed with Democratic lawmakers who have demanded that Whitaker recuse himself -- as Sessions did in 2017. That left Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the Russia probe until Trump replaced Sessions.

"We’re in totally uncharted waters," said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor. The Justice Department "must be above and beyond any sense of impropriety for people to have confidence in the criminal justice system."

As a CNN commentator, Whitaker openly argued last year that Mueller’s probe needs to be curtailed, even describing a scenario in which an acting attorney general doesn’t fire Mueller but “just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt.”

Read more: Mueller Gets a New Boss Who’s Blasted Russia Investigation

He said Trump may be right in calling the probe a “witch hunt” if it turned to Trump’s personal finances and those of his family.

"The question is not is there an impropriety or has he already been influenced," said Cramer, who’s managing director of the Berkeley Research Group. "The question is: Is there an appearance of impropriety? A reasonable answer has to be yes. He’s spoken out against this investigation."

Whitaker also worked as chairman of Sam Clovis’s failed campaign for Iowa state treasurer in 2014. Clovis had run for the Senate as well and later worked on Trump’s presidential campaign. He has been interviewed as part of Mueller’s Russia probe.

A coalition of 18 Democratic state attorneys general wrote a letter to Whitaker Thursday calling for his recusal, citing his comments critical of Mueller’s probe as reason to question his ability to remain impartial. The letter recommends that Rosenstein continue his oversight of the investigation.

“Because a reasonable person could question your impartiality in the matter, your recusal is necessary to protect the essential and longstanding independence of the department," according to the letter, which was written by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. “At various opportunities, you have suggested cutting the special counsel’s budget or limiting his authority to follow lines of inquiry.”

— With assistance by Kartikay Mehrotra

(Updates with letter from state AGs.)