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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.”
‘They have to get the shot’
By Dartunorro Clark
President Donald Trump on Friday urged parents to get their children vaccinated after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week record-high cases of measles since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000.
“They have to get the shot. The vaccinations are so important,” Trump said outside the White House on his way to Indianapolis to address the NRA. “This is really going around now, they have to get their shot.”
New cases of measles reported in New York, New Jersey and California bring the total number of infections in the U.S. to at least 695 so far in 2019 according to new numbers released by CDC.
Nearly 300 students and employees at two Los Angeles universities were under quarantine Thursday and Friday after possible exposure to measles.
Trump’s comments on Friday differed from his past remarks on vaccinations.
At a 2015 Republican presidential candidate debate hosted by CNN, Trump said that he wanted to change the vaccine schedule for children, erroneously linking autism to vaccines.
“Autism has become an epidemic…I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” he said.
In a March 2014 tweet, Trump questioned why a child “gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines.”
“Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes — AUTISM. Many such cases!” he tweeted.
On Wednesday, New York City and suburban Rockland County confirmed an additional 37 measles cases, and California reported seven new cases. The second-highest number for measles cases in the U.S. was 667 in 2014, according to the CDC.
In New York City and Rockland County, there have been 590 cases since the measles outbreak began in October 2018. Los Angeles reported its first five cases on Monday.
Trump says no money paid to North Korea to have Otto Warmbier returned
By Adam Edelman
President Donald Trump on Friday denied that his administration had paid any money as part of a deal to get North Korea to return Otto Warmbier, whom the regime had detained.
“No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else,” Trump tweeted.
The tweet came in response to a Washington Post report on Thursday that North Korea had issued a $2 million bill to the U.S. for the medical care of Warmbier, who was returned to the U.S. in an unconscious state.
The regime, The Post reported, demanded that a U.S. official sign a pledge to pay the bill before Warmbier was allowed to be returned to the U.S.
State Department official Joseph Yun, who had traveled to North Korea in 2017 to help retrieve Warmbier, was instructed to sign the agreement by Trump and did so, The Post said. The bill was sent to the U.S. Treasury Department and remained unpaid throughout 2017. The Post said it was not clear whether the bill was later paid.
Responding to questions from NBC News about the report, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday, “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration.”
Warmbier, 22, was arrested for taking a propaganda banner from a hotel while on a visit to Pyongyang in January 2016. The University of Virginia student from Ohio was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
The North Korean government released him in June 2017, and when he returned to U.S. soil, doctors found him to be in a state of unresponsive wakefulness. He died days later; the exact cause of death is still not known.
His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, were told he had been in a coma since shortly after being sentenced.
In February, Trump was slammed by politicians on both sides of the aisle after he absolved North Korean Kim Jong Un of blame in the death of Warmbier. Following a summit with Kim, Trump said at a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, that it “just wasn’t to (Kim’s) advantage to let that happen.” He added: “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
The president later tweeted that his comments had been misinterpreted and said, “Of course I hold North Korea responsible.”
If it’s Biden v. Bernie, buckle up
By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann
WASHINGTON — They’re both white men in their mid-to-late 70s. And they’re both current/former creatures of the U.S. Senate.
But Joe Biden versus Bernie Sanders — the two 2020 candidates who lead in almost every Democratic poll — represents one heck of an ideological contrast, if the race ultimately comes down to these two men.
So in addition to the not-so-subtle shot that the Sanders campaign took at Biden’s high-roller fundraiser last night, the two candidates disagree on:
- health care (Sanders is for a single-payer system; Biden likely will work to protect/strengthen Obamacare);
- trade (Sanders opposed the TPP trade agreement; Biden backed it as Barack Obama’s VP);
- and their vision for 2020 (Sanders is once again calling for a political revolution; Biden is running on a political restoration project).
Of course, a full-out Biden-versus-Bernie ideological fight — if it comes to that — could create an opening for the other 2020 Dems, whose messages are in between a revolution and a restoration.
And last night, Elizabeth Warren took a swipe at Biden’s entry when she was asked about his record on Wall Street and bankruptcy, per MSNBC’s Shirley Zilberstein.
“At a time when the biggest financial institutions in this country were trying to put the squeeze on millions of hard-working families who were in bankruptcy because of medical problems, job losses, divorce and death in the family, there was nobody to stand up for them,” she said.
“I got in that fight because they just didn’t have anyone. And Joe Biden was on the side of the credit card companies.”
But also remember that both Biden and Sanders mutually benefit from contrasts with one another.
Biden needs the foil of Sanders to show that his version of democratic socialism goes too far, while Sanders needs the foil of Biden to demonstrate that Obamaism-Bidenism doesn’t go far enough.
So don’t be surprised if this Biden-versus-Bernie debate becomes a staple of the fall before next year’s first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Trump addresses a struggling NRA
When President Trump addresses the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis at 11:35 am ET, he’ll speak to an organization that’s been incredibly weakened over the past year.
“[T]he group is grappling with infighting, bleeding money and facing a series of investigations into its operating practices, including allegations that covert Russian agents seeking to influence the 2016 election courted its officials and funneled money through the group,” the AP writes.
More: “Indeed, as Trump is speaking Friday, Maria Butina, the admitted Russian agent, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in Washington.”
Besides its financial and Russian troubles, the NRA also got drubbed in last year’s midterms – a reminder that the NRA’s political fate is tied directly to the Republican Party.
It wasn’t that way 20 years ago…
2020 Vision: Who endorsed Biden and who didn’t
On his first day as a presidential candidate, Biden picked up some key (but not surprising) endorsements:
- Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
- Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
- Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.
- Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del.
- Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa.
- Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa.
- Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y.
But here’s an endorsement Biden didn’t get — Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who backed Pete Buttigieg earlier this week.
Why is Beyer notable here?
“Beyer endorsed Obama in early 2007 and volunteered on his campaign, knocking on doors for weeks in Iowa ahead of the state caucuses,” the Washington Post writes.
Also: “Beyer served two terms as Virginia’s lieutenant governor in the 1990s, was a major fundraiser for Obama and served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2009 to 2013.”
On the campaign trail
Today: Joe Biden appears on The View… Elizabeth Warren stumps in Iowa… Kirsten Gillibrand hits New Hampshire… Cory Booker campaigns in South Carolina… And Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro both swing through Nevada.
Saturday: President Trump holds a rally in Green Bay, Wis… O’Rourke, Castro, Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and John Hickenlooper attend an SEIU forum in Las Vegas… O’Rourke later heads to California… And Gillibrand remains in New Hampshire, while Booker stays in South Carolina.
Sunday: O’Rourke holds a town hall in San Francisco.
Data Download: The number of the day is … 28 years
That’s the time that passed between the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings — for which Joe Biden served as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — and his reported repentant phone call a few weeks ago to Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment.
But, as the New York Times reports, the call didn’t go as he hoped.
Hill told the Times: “I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you’ … I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”
She also didn’t call Biden’s phone call an apology, and — although she doesn’t see Biden’s conduct during the hearings as totally disqualifying — she said she can’t support him until he further addresses his treatment of her and of corroborating witnesses who were never called to testify in the confirmation fight.
The Lid: Oh, that Joe
Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the various ways Joe Biden’s candidacy could play out.
Tweet of the day
ICYMI: This week’s overlooked stories
Biden gets in! The subpoena war! More fallout from the Mueller report! Those were the stories that dominated the week.
But don’t miss these other ones, per NBC’s Kyle Stewart, which would have received more attention in any other political era.
- North Korea issued $2 million bill for comatose Otto Warmbier’s care.
- Watchdogs open 2nd ethics probe of top Interior officials.
- Latino vote surged in 2018, new data shows.
- Putin meets with Kim in hopes he can help resolve nuclear standoff.
And don’t miss these stories today….
The Washington Post has details on how Trump enlisted Corey Lewandowski to try to curtail the Mueller probe.
Rod Rosenstein is hitting back at the Mueller report’s critics.
POLITICO looks at how Mick Mulvaney is trying to boost White House morale.
Joe Biden has hired Symone Sanders.
In other news out there…
Trump agenda: Hack this
The Trump campaign won’t rule out using hacked material in 2020.
The Trump administration has six months to identify migrant children who have been separated from their families, according to a judge’s new ruling.
Trump is meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on trade.
2020: Betting on fear of Trump
Biden is betting big on fear of Trump, NBC’s Jonathan Allen writes.
And is Trump worried about Biden?
Biden’s first swing is focused on Iowa and South Carolina.
Elizabeth Warren is blasting a new big bank merger.
The AP reports on Cory Booker’s plan to boost the EPA.
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