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By Ken Dilanian and Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2017, when Matthew Whitaker was a conservative legal commentator on CNN, he repeatedly expressed reservations about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, at one point musing about how a clever attorney general could secretly starve it of funds.

Two years before, Whitaker, a former Iowa federal prosecutor, was the campaign chairman for an Iowa politician who later became an important witness in Mueller’s probe of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Now, Whitaker is the acting attorney general, and one of his jobs is to supervise the Mueller investigation. He has shown no indication that he will heed the advice of Democrats and legal ethicists, who say there is a clear case that he should recuse himself from that role. There is no legal mechanism to force his recusal.

“Based on what Mr. Whitaker has said in the past about the Mueller investigation, his assumption of responsibility over the investigation certainly raises the appearance of impropriety,” said Mary McCord, who headed the Justice Department’s National Security Division under President Obama from 2016 to 2017. “I would hope that, at a minimum, he would consult with ethics experts at the Department before assuming that responsibility.”

Whitaker, a physically imposing man who played tight end for the University of Iowa team that lost the 1991 Rose Bowl, served most recently as chief of staff for Jeff Sessions, who was forced out by President Donald Trump on Wednesday.

In the Justice Department, Whitaker was viewed as an agent of the White House, one administration official and one former U.S. attorney told NBC News.

“It’s no secret where his loyalties lie — they’re with the White House more than with the Department,” the official said.

Instead of turning to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to become the acting attorney general. Trump placed Whitaker in that role. Rosenstein, a career public servant, had been supervising the Mueller investigation because Sessions had been recused, due to his prominent role in the Trump presidential campaign. With Sessions gone, the acting attorney general retains the role of overseeing Mueller – approving budgets, and signing off on new investigative steps or indictments. It is believed the acting attorney general would have to approve the politically fraught move of issuing a subpoena for the president’s testimony — unless Mueller has already secured one with Rosenstein’s OK.

As a commentator, Whitaker expressed opinions on exactly the issues about which he may now have to decide.

For example, in an Aug. 2017 CNN op-ed, Whitaker wrote that Mueller’s investigation was at risk of becoming a “witch hunt.” He added, channeling comments, by Trump, that it would be “dangerously close to crossing [a] red line” if Mueller looked into Trump’s finances.

Before that, in July, Whitaker brainstormed in a television appearance about how Trump could constrain Mueller.

“I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” Whitaker said, “and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

That same month, in another appearance, Whitaker defended Donald Trump Jr.’s decision to take a meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016, after he was promised incriminating information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government.

“You would always take the meeting,” he said.

In an Aug. 17 tweet, Whitaker seemed to criticize the FBI’s search of the home of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has since pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller.

“Do we want our Gov’t to ‘intimidate’ us? Hmm,” he tweeted, linking to a Fox News story with the headline “FBI’s Manafort raid included a dozen agents, ‘designed to intimidate,’ source says.”

And in May 2017, speaking on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s radio show, Whitaker opined that the president did not obstruct justice when he urged then-FBI director James Comey to stop investigating his then-national security adviser, Mike Flynn.

“That doesn’t rise to the level of obstruction of justice, and it doesn’t sound to me based on what’s been reported that Jim Comey, as he sat there, believed that the president was telling him to stop the investigation,” Whitaker said. “if all he did was make a mere suggestion and not an outright command, I don’t think that rises to the level of obstruction.”

Legal experts say there are two grounds on which Whitaker should remove himself from any involvement in the Mueller investigation: His relationship with Sam Clovis and his past statements criticizing the investigation.

A Justice Department regulation says that no employee should participate in an investigation “if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation.”

Clovis testified before the Mueller grand jury, and he was listed as an unnamed “campaign supervisor” in the indictment of former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Clovis was present at a meeting, along with Sessions and Trump, during which Papadopoulos says he broached the idea of Trump meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Both Clovis and Whitaker ran in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Iowa in 2014, and during that time they became “great friends,” Clovis said in a later statement.

“I respect and admire Dr. Clovis,” Whitaker was quoted as saying. “His life is an example of strong service to God and service to country.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor and ethics expert at Washington University, says that friendship would appear to be grounds for recusal. But equally problematic, she says, are Whitaker’s statements suggesting he is not impartial about the Mueller investigation.

Federal ethics regulations that apply government-wide state that a government employee should consider stepping aside in a matter when “the circumstances would cause a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts to question his impartiality in the matter.”

“I believe that there are circumstances that would raise a question in the minds of a reasonable person about Whitaker’s impartiality in the Russia investigation,” Clark said. “We as the public have a right to be assured that the people who are participating in that investigation are impartial.”

But there is no enforcement mechanism. A former Justice Department official said it is up to Whitaker to seek the advice of ethics officials in the Office of Government Ethics or the Justice Department’s ethics office.

“It’s incumbent upon the person,” the official said. “There is no ethics policeman wandering around the Department.”



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Democratic mayor Pete Buttigieg running for president; would be first openly gay nominee

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By Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Democrat Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is forming an exploratory committee for a 2020 presidential bid, according to a video and email announcement.

“The reality is there’s no going back, and there’s no such thing as ‘again’ in the real world. We can’t look for greatness in the past,” Buttigieg says in a video that includes before-and-after footage of South Bend, a Rust Belt city once described as “dying.”

“Right now our country needs a fresh start,” he says.

If he were to win the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential nominee from a major political party.

Buttigieg has touted his work to improve his city of 100,000 residents as he’s prepared for an improbable jump from local politics to a presidential campaign. He’s also said Democrats could benefit from a new generation of leaders as they try to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

He’s expected to travel to Iowa next week to meet with voters in the nation’s first caucus state, followed by stops in New Hampshire.

Buttigieg is a Rhodes scholar who was first elected mayor of his hometown in 2011 at age 29 — making him the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with at least 100,000 residents. A lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, he served a tour in Afghanistan in 2014.

Buttigieg raised his national profile with an unsuccessful 2017 run for Democratic National Committee chairman, saying the party needed a new start. He withdrew from the race before a vote when it became clear he didn’t have the support to win.

Buttigieg has spent time in Iowa and other battleground states in recent years as he tried to build financial support and name recognition. He cracks that those who do know his name still aren’t sure how to pronounce it. Most of the time he goes by “Mayor Pete.”

Amid his campaign for a second term, Buttigieg came out as gay in a column in the local newspaper. He went on to win re-election with 80 percent of the vote. In 2018 — three years to the day after the column ran — he married his husband, middle school teacher Chasten Glezman.

Buttigieg announced in December that he wouldn’t seek a third term as mayor, stoking speculation he would join a field of roughly two dozen candidates who may seek the Democratic nomination for president — most of them better-known and with experience in higher office, and all of them older.

“I belong to a generation that is stepping forward right now,” he says in the video released Wednesday. “We’re the generation that lived through school shootings, that served in the wars after 9/11, and we’re the generation that stands to be the first to make less than our parents unless we do something different. We can’t just polish off a system so broken. It is a season for boldness and a focus on the future.”

Buttigieg is releasing a book in February about his life and his tenure leading South Bend.

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Shutdown could further endanger whales

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By Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to the federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Outside of the federal government, work to protect whales is still going on. The developer of an offshore wind energy project off Massachusetts announced Wednesday it is partnering with environmental groups on a plan to try to protect the right whales.

And not all the news about the whales is gloomy. A Florida research team has located the third right whale calf of the season. None were spotted last season.

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said that a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and that he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.”

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Trump says he will not give State of the Union until government shutdown is over

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By Phil Helsel

President Donald Trump late Wednesday announced he would not hold a State of the Union address until after the partial government shutdown, now in its fifth week, is over.

The announcement made shortly after 11 p.m. seemingly puts to rest a dispute between the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over whether the address would be held.

Pelosi said in a letter earlier Wednesday that the Democratic-controlled House “will not consider a concurrent resolution authorizing the president’s State of the Union address in the House chamber until the government has opened.”

Trump said on Twitter: “As the Shutdown was going on, Nancy Pelosi asked me to give the State of the Union Address. I agreed. She then changed her mind because of the Shutdown, suggesting a later date. This is her prerogative – I will do the Address when the Shutdown is over.”

The president is not allowed to speak in the chamber, the traditional spot for the State of the Union address, unless the House and Senate pass a resolution allowing him to do so.

Pelosi had initially invited Trump to give the speech later this month, but she sent him a letter last week asking him to delay his remarks or submit them in writing. She cited concerns over security because of the partial government shutdown, which affects the Department of Homeland Security.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump said, “The State of the Union speech has been canceled by Nancy Pelosi because she doesn’t want to hear the truth. She doesn’t want the American public to hear what’s going on.”

“Great blotch on the incredible country we that all love. Great, great horrible mark,” Trump said.

Asked if he’d be giving a speech Tuesday night, the president responded that an announcement would be forthcoming soon.

The government has been partially shut down since Dec. 22, in a dispute over Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.



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