After a flurry of conflicting rumors and reports and with Rod Rosenstein apparently himself convinced that he was about to be shit-canned by Trump, the deputy attorney general ended the day Monday with his job still intact — for now, anyway.
Should the president fire Rosenstein (or accept his resignation) Thursday after returning from the UN General Assembly in his home state of New York, Matt Whitaker, a former US attorney for the Southern District of Iowa who ran in the 2014 GOP primary that led to Joni Ernst’s election to the Senate, would be his likely successor, according to a report Monday in the New York Times.
Whitaker currently serves as chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who drew Trump’s ire after recusing himself from Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation into Russia’s influence over the 2016 election. As a result, Rosenstein has overseen the probe instead and has long been targeted by Trump for it. That only intensified Friday, when the Times reported that Rosenstein — perhaps sarcastically, perhaps not (or, if you take Rosenstein at his word, perhaps not at all) — suggested wearing a wire to secretly record the president and even floated the idea of removing him from office via the 25th Amendment.
Although he works for Sessions, Whitaker would likely cause Trump less consternation than Rosenstein, who is sometimes viewed as one of the last lines of defense keeping the Mueller probe alive. On Monday, Mother Jones compiled a collection of comments Whitaker made during his time as a CNN commentator, before the former Iowa Hawkeyes tight end was named as the attorney general’s chief of staff in September 2017.
Whitaker, who would not take charge of oversight of the Mueller probe if he replaces Rosenstein, according to the Times, but would be in a position to influence it, said it was at risk of becoming a “witch hunt.” On Don Lemon’s show in July 2017, Whitaker speculated that Trump might seek to cut Mueller’s budget for the investigation as an approach that would be “a little more stage crafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him.”
That August, he wrote an opinion article for CNN’s website titled “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far.” Echoing Trump, he suggested that digging into the president’s personal finances would be beyond the scope of the probe and a “red line” Mueller was “dangerously close to crossing.”
Among other comments, Whitaker also defended Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting during the campaign with a Russian official promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and on Twitter promoted an op-ed from the Philadelphia Inquirer calling the Mueller probe a “lynch mob.”
However, as Mother Jones noted, Whitaker has also spoken highly of Mueller. “There is no honest person that sits in the world of politics, in the world of law, that can find anything wrong with Bob Mueller,” he said during another CNN appearance, and, if “something’s wrong with Bob Mueller … our republic is in more trouble than we might imagine.”
Before Whitaker was reported to be the likely successor to Rosenstein, his name was floated as a possible pick to replace White House legal counsel Don McGahn. In August, after the Times reported that McGahn had been cooperating with the Mueller probe, Trump tweeted: “White House Counsel Don McGahn will be leaving his position in the fall, shortly after the confirmation (hopefully) of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. I have worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service!”