Thursday was perhaps the most chaotic day of Donald Trump’s exhausting presidency.
Still, you might have missed one of the most shocking developments, distracted by the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and the president’s sudden insistence that Democrats are to blame for a government shutdown (despite bragging “I will be the one to shut it down” earlier this month).
Thursday was rendered even more chaotic because the White House unveiled a new policy blocking migrants who are attempting to legally claim asylum in the U.S. from entering the country, announced that Trump would be kicking 800,000 people off of food stamps, and doubled down on the president’s hastily conceived plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
But amid all of that activity, something very shady went down at Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) this week.
It started Thursday morning, when CNN reported acting attorney General Matthew Whitaker had been told by Justice Department officials that he wouldn’t need to recuse himself from oversight of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election — despite having been an outspoken critic of the special counsel.
The decision was met with surprise by former DOJ officials and Democrats, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who will become chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee on January 3.
This ethics opinion must be shared with Congress. Now.
DOJ officials must avoid not only actual impropriety but the appearance of impropriety.
Given Whitaker’s prejudicial comments about Mueller, the public can have no confidence in him. We will scrutinize his every action. https://t.co/0Jxbn1eJSP
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) December 20, 2018
The Los Angeles Times reported later Thursday that Whitaker had actually been told by a senior ethics official at the department that he should recuse himself from oversight of Mueller. The LA Times said other “senior appointed” DOJ officials advised him otherwise, however.
The picture became somewhat clearer later Thursday, when the Washington Post reported that the “senior appointed” officials had actually been a group of Whitaker’s advisers, whom the DOJ refused to identify.
The department tried to defend the decision by claiming no attorney general had ever recused himself or herself over a perceived conflict of interest, but Eric Columbus — a member of former President Barack Obama’s DOJ — pointed out that was not true.
Whitaker’s team wrongly claims no AG has ever recused to avoid an appearance of conflict. It’s actually happened at least 3 times:
1. Ashcroft in Valerie Plame leak investigation (h/t @nycsouthpaw)
2. Holder in John Edwards investigation.
3. Holder in AP leak investigation. https://t.co/4LwTSIwBBH
— Eric Columbus (@EricColumbus) December 20, 2018
Matthew Miller, who also served in Obama’s DOJ, told MSNBC on Thursday that the move by Whitaker was an “enormous scandal” and “the most brazenly corrupt act that I’ve seen out of the Justice Department since I’ve been watching the department.”
Although a Justice Department official said on Thursday Mueller’s investigation would continue to be overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Whitaker’s actions raised new fears about the management of the special counsel’s probe by Trump’s DOJ.
William Barr, Trump’s pick to be former attorney general Jeff Sessions’ permanent replacement, has echoed the president’s rhetoric on the Russia investigation, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former FBI director James Comey.
It has been suggested that Barr is also likely to have to recuse himself from the Russia probe — especially after it was revealed that he sent a 20-page memo to the department that criticized Mueller in June. It now appears that Trump’s Justice Department has set up a system by which Barr could also bypass ethics officials.
Miller noted that, unlike Whitaker, Barr still faces Senate confirmation and likely questions about how he would handle the special counsel.
The difference is that the Senate can make it the price of confirmation for Barr, a path that wasn’t available with Whitaker. https://t.co/fHSURRSXus
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) December 21, 2018
Trump has been dogged in his efforts to thwart the Russia probe.
Earlier this year, the president signed a secret waiver that would prevent Solicitor General Noel Francisco from having to recuse himself from oversight of Mueller’s investigation.
Trump’s own Justice Department implicated the president — or “Individual 1” as he has come to be known in court filings — in directing a felony last month after Michael Cohen, his former attorney, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, tax fraud, and lying to Congress.
Mueller’s investigation has racked up over 100 criminal charges against dozens of people, including guilty pleas from Trump’s former national security adviser, former campaign chair, former attorney, and multiple former advisers since it started in May 2017.