Matthew Whitaker, the interim replacement for departed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has made several on-the-record statements about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which has circled around President Donald Trump’s campaign staff and family. He also has a close tie to a witness in the Mueller probe, and has ties to a business the FTC shut down last year.
These statements and connections, in televised interviews, tweets, and published writing, may jeopardize his credibility in assuming supervision of the Mueller probe, even though Whitaker cannot be forced to recuse himself from decisions. With the House shifting to Democratic control, however, committees will be able to require him to testify, and subpoena documents and other witnesses.
Whitaker joined the Justice Department as Sessions’s chief of staff in October 2017. He was a legal commentator on CNN for four months preceding that position.
Whitaker Said Trump Tower Meeting with Russians Was Just Fine
In a July 13, 2017, appearance on CNN, Whitaker dismissed any ethical or legal problems with the meeting in June 2016 in Trump Tower with Russians with links to the Kremlin.
Whitaker said that the Russians wanted to discuss adoption policy with Russian, and used the notion of providing opposition research on Hillary Clinton as a pretext. “You would always take that meeting,” he said.
He went on to say, “If you have somebody you trust that is saying you need to meet with this individual because they have information about your opponent, you would take that meeting.” However, he said, information that emerged later “becomes a little concerning.”
The meeting was arranged by Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who attended with four others, some also Russian. Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump, Jr., attended the meeting. (Manafort has been found guilty of and pleaded guilty to multiple financial charges, none related to this meeting.)
Since the meeting’s existence was revealed, details about participants and what was said have shifted and changed repeatedly.
Whitaker Said Mueller Must Not Cross ‘Red Line’ by Looking into Trump Family Finances
In an August 2017 opinion piece at CNN, Whitaker agreed with the president’s assertion in July 2017 that if Mueller’s investigation looked into the finances of Trump and his family that it would be a “violation” because the investigation was about Russia.
Whitaker wrote that “investigating Donald Trump’s finances or his family’s finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else.”
He also stated, “Any investigation into President Trump’s finances or the finances of his family would require Mueller to return to Rod Rosenstein for additional authority under Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.”
Whitaker Suggested Reducing Mueller’s Budget To Bring Investigation to a Halt
In 2017, Whitaker told CNN’s Don Lemon that a strategy to end the investigation would be for the Justice Department to effectively defund the Mueller investigation.
He said, “I can see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget so low that his investigation grinds almost to a halt.”
Whitaker Worked as Campaign Chair for a Mueller Investigation Witness
In 2014, Whitaker acted as campaign chair for Sam Clovis, who ran for Iowa state treasurer in 2014. Clovis worked on the Trump campaign, and, as was reported in October 2017, had both been interviewed by Mueller’s team and had testified before a grand jury.
Clovis also appeared in an indictment of Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos as a “campaign supervisor,” according to The Washington Post. Clovis confirmed a friendship with Whitaker to Talking Points Memo on Nov. 7.
Whitaker Threatened a Customer of a Business the FTC Shut Down
According to The Miami New Times, Whitaker sat on the board of World Patent Marketing, a company that the FTC shut down in 2017, describing it as an operation “bilking millions of dollars from consumers.” The main allegation is that the company never provided services promised to patent and market inventions.
The complaint stated that companies headed up by World Patent Marketing founder and CEO Scott Cooper “deceived consumers and suppressed complaints about them using threats, intimidation, and gag clauses.”
One of those threats reportedly came from Whitaker. In an email he warned a customer he could face “serious civil and criminal consequences” if the customer posted negative reviews online or a complaint to the Better Business Bureau. The email the New Times cited also had Whitaker identifying himself (correctly) as a former U.S. attorney.
The New Times noted that Whitaker received $10,000 in payments from the company, and $2,600 as a campaign donation from Cooper for a 2014 Senate run.
The FTC demanded a nearly $26 million judgement, but agreed in a settlement in May 2018 to accept less. Cooper neither admitted nor denied the allegations, but agreed to a host of limitations on future business enterprises and behavior.