Amid Mounting Ethics Woes, Iowa Republicans Stand By Matt Whitaker


Before the election, the Informer looked at the rumors swirling around then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, Iowa attorney Jeff Whitaker, who had been floated as a potential replacement for former White House legal counsel Don McGahn, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and even Sessions.

It didn’t take long for President Trump to resolve the uncertainty about Whitaker, the former Ankeny High School and University of Iowa football player who went on to become an attorney and evangelical Republican politician. Immediately after the election, Trump booted Sessions from office, the Justice Department releasing a photograph reminiscent of a scene from a tinpot dictatorship showing the former AG standing in front of Whitaker seemingly dazed and waving uncomfortably. Without any review, and despite his recent work as a cable news commentator who openly and repeatedly criticized the Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign, Whitaker was named by the president as the new acting attorney general.

Matt Whitaker, right, applauds as Jeff Sessions bids farewell to the Justice Department. Photo: @TheJusticeDept/Twitter

By last Thursday — just two days after the election — reports emerged that the White House was already nervous about picking Whitaker for the role. Somehow, staffers were reportedly unaware of his widely known and recent commentary on CNN, where he said the Mueller probe risked becoming a “witch hunt” and that it was “dangerously close to crossing” a “red line” of digging into the president’s personal finances. “I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Trump claimed the next day. The month before on Fox News, he had said, “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”

Leading Iowa Republicans think Whitaker is a great guy, too.

“Fellow Iowan Matt Whitaker is a man of integrity and values,” said Joni Ernst, who defeated Whitaker in the 2014 GOP Senate primary, in a statement last Thursday. “As Acting Attorney General, Matt Whitaker is a steady hand that will provide good leadership and judgment, and will ensure that the United States Department of Justice upholds the highest standards of the rule of law.” The next day in Ames, Ernst said she didn’t plan to do anything to protect the Mueller probe against the glaring conflict of interest in its oversight by a Trump loyalist appointed by the president who, unlike Sessions, has given no indication that he plans to recuse himself from it. “I don’t know that the investigation itself needs to be protected,” she added, then falsely claimed: “We’ve gone two years with a very thorough investigation. Two years of investigations have absolutely nothing to show for it.” (In fact, it’s resulted in over 30 charges, with more indictments expected soon.)

On Monday, Chuck Grassley shared a photo on Instagram of himself at a “working bfast [breakfast]” with Whitaker. As head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, Iowa’s senior senator could play a key role in allowing Whitaker to obstruct the Mueller probe. Yesterday, Grassley was nominated by his GOP colleagues to become the next president pro tempore of the Senate, which would make him third in line to the presidency. That same day, he told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the leading Democrat on the committee, that he wouldn’t hold a hearing on Trump’s appointment of Whitaker as acting attorney general, saying “the Senate historically gives more deference to a president on cabinet picks” and that he would wait to hold a hearing until Trump nominated a permanent replacement for AG.

In early October, during a private Oval Office meeting with Trump that lasted for more than an hour, Steve King vouched for Whitaker, urging the president to “empower” him and prevent him from being “caught in the crossfire” of controversy over a shake-up at the Justice Department. “The president said he was a Whitaker fan,” King told the Daily Mail, “and he asked me to call Matt, and tell him that he loves him.” (After the meeting, King tweeted a photo of his hand with notes written on it that included the letters “A G E,” a possible reference to the attorney general position and election.)

A photo of Steve King’s hand taken after the congressman left a private Oval Office meeting with President Trump in early October. “@realDonaldTrump & I covered a whole slew of our topics,” King tweeted. “My agenda was on my hand.” Photo: @SteveKingIA/Twitter

Whitaker was on Trump’s radar before that, thanks to fellow Iowa Republican and King ally Sam Clovis, a national co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign who encouraged Whitaker to get his CNN commentator gig to attract the president’s attention. The Clovis connection raises additional conflicts of interest: After Clovis also ran in the 2014 Senate primary won by Ernst, Whitaker chaired his doomed run for state treasurer. Last year, Clovis was questioned by Mueller’s team because of his alleged involvement in arranging meetings between Russian officials and since-indicted Trump campaign staffers. In Sioux City Nov. 6, the Informer spotted Clovis walking into the room where King was holding his election night rally. (We attempted to attend the event but were turned away at the door.)

In the midst of all this, a flurry of news reports has come out raising even more questions about Whitaker’s apparent ethical lapses. The Des Moines Register published a series of articles from its archives, including a column that recounted how Whitaker, as a Bush-appointed US district attorney (who’d been appointed on Grassley’s recommendation despite his minimal experience), launched a dubious investigation into then state Sen. Matt McCoy, an openly gay Des Moines Democrat. In a 2014 religious discrimination lawsuit, Whitaker represented Bob Eschliman, the former Newton Daily News editor fired for publishing homophobic remarks on his personal blog. Running for Senate that same year, Whitaker said at a debate hosted by anti-gay activist Bob Vander Plaats’ The Family Leader that if judges “have a secular worldview, where this is all we have here on Earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about how they judge.”

Whitaker also served as a member of the advisory board for World Patent Marketing, a Miami-based company that is under FBI investigation for allegedly scamming would-be inventors out of millions of dollars and costing veterans their life savings. He helped it market bizarre products including a “MASCULINE TOILET” for “well-endowed men” and time-travel cryptocurrency. Responding to a Federal Trade Commission complaint, the company shut down in May and agreed to pay a $26 million settlement. Three years earlier, Whitaker allegedly responded to a complaint against the company published on the website Ripoff Reports by threatening the site’s owner. (On Wednesday at a Justice Department rural and elder summit in Des Moines, Whitaker described how his own mother was the victim of a scam targeting senior citizens.) And this week, Iowa-based Associated Press reporters Ryan Foley and David Pitt revealed that a company run by Whitaker recently bailed on two affordable housing loans, including one from the city of Des Moines and another $700,000 loan it defaulted on, stiffing contractors out of thousands of dollars in the process.

None of this, apparently, is a concern for any of the Republicans in Iowa’s congressional delegation.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.