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Matthew Whitaker has a tangled history with the Mueller probe

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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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Two Asian Americans apparently elected to New York State Senate in historic first

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By Chris Fuchs

Voters appear to have given the New York State Senate its first two Asian-American lawmakers Tuesday — one of whom would be the first Indian American to ever serve in either house of the state legislature.

John Liu, a Democrat and New York City’s first Asian-American city councilman, apparently defeated Republican candidate Vickie Paladino, conservative candidate Simon H. Minching, as well as incumbent Tony Avella, who lost the Democratic primary to Liu in September, according to unofficial results.

Avella, whose state Senate district encompasses neighborhoods in the New York City borough of Queens, still ran in the general election, though not as a Democrat.

Meanwhile, unofficial results out on Long Island showed that attorney Kevin Thomas, an immigrant from India, appeared to eke out a victory against Republican incumbent Kemp Hannon, whose district covers parts of Nassau County.

Come January, assuming the results stand, Liu and Thomas will join Democratic assembly members Ron Kim and Yuh-Line Niou as the state legislature’s four Asian-American lawmakers.

Asians make up around 9 percent of the state’s total population, according to census figures.

“The goal was to inject a voice that had been absent prior,” Liu said in a phone interview. “And the goal is also to vigorously represent the needs of this community that I’ve lived in my whole life, and grown up in, and am raising my own family in.”



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Gillum statement stokes intrigue as Florida vote margin tightens

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By Ali Vitali

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — All eyes were on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum on Thursday, as vote margins in Florida’s close contests for governor and Senate tightened.

Gillum’s campaign stoked intrigue by releasing a statement about “counting every vote” — but not explicitly asking for a recount.

On Tuesday night, Gillum conceded in his race against Republican Ron DeSantis and his team was clear Wednesday that it hadn’t met the threshold to trigger an automatic recount.

Gillum has 49.1 percent, or 4,023,124 votes, while DeSantis has 49.6 percent, or 4,066,059 votes, for a margin of just under 43,000, according to NBC News.

The Gillum statement said that since the concession speech “it has become clear there are many more uncounted ballots than was originally reported. Our campaign, along with our attorney Barry Richard, is monitoring the situation closely and is ready for any outcome, including a state-mandated recount.”

It continued, “Mayor Gillum started his campaign for the people, and we are committed to ensuring every single vote in Florida is counted.”

NBC News has called DeSantis the “apparent” winner in the governor race, while votes are still being counted in places like Broward County and margins appear to be tightening slightly.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Senate race featuring Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson against Republican Rick Scott seemed to be heading for a recount, which is automatically triggered when the vote difference is less than 0.5 percent. It is currently .2 percent, fewer than 22,000 votes, according to NBC News.

The deadline for all 67 Florida counties to submit their first set of unofficial returns is Saturday at noon ET, according to the secretary of state’s office.

In a call with reporters Thursday, Nelson lawyer Marc Elias said that the race currently stands as a “jump ball” as counties around the state canvass their votes, but he believes Nelson will remain senator once the recount dust settles.

The Scott campaign, for its part, released a statement Thursday attacking Nelson for hiring a D.C. lawyer in an attempt to “steal” the election. Scott declared victory Tuesday night, but NBC News has not yet called the race.

The Sunshine State is no stranger to lengthy post-election battles. Most famously, the state was the epicenter of the George W. Bush versus Al Gore “hanging chad” debacle in 2000.

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Fla. Gov. Rick Scott sues Broward and Palm Beach counties and accuses ‘unethical liberals’ of trying to steal election with bogus vote count

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By Ali Vitali and Doha Madani

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday evening filed suit and asked for an investigation into ongoing ballot counts that he accused of being a partisan attempt by “unethical liberals” to steal the state’s Senate election.

Scott, who ran against incumbent Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, alleged that the Broward County and Palm Beach County supervisors of elections were engaging in “rampant fraud.”

The governor requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate the new ballot counts, which have narrowed his Election Night-lead.

“Every day since the election the left-wing activists in Broward County have been coming up with more and more ballots out of nowhere,” Scott told reporters.

The tight Senate race was too close to call on Tuesday night, but as more votes were processed, Scott’s lead fell below .5 percent, which could trigger an automatic machine recount. It is currently .2 percent — fewer than 22,000 votes, according to NBC News. A final vote count is expected by noon on Saturday.

“I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try and steal this election from the great people of Florida,” Scott told reporters Thursday.



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