President Donald Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker as interim attorney general for one reason.
Whitaker, while a former U.S. Attorney, has had a relatively obscure career. Before Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed him as his chief of staff, he spent several years not practicing law but running a foundation dedicated to publicizing misdeeds —and alleged misdeeds — committed by Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Harry Reid and other Democrats.
But there is one thing that really made Whitaker stand out for Trump: his public attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, including suggestions on how it might best be sabotaged. Whitaker even suggested that a “stage-crafty” solution to Trump’s Mueller problem would be to “reduce his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt.”
Of course, Russian meddling in the 2016 election is not a hoax. Mueller’s investigation has already resulted in at least 35 indictments or guilty pleas directly related to active Russian election interference. And it is imperative that Mueller be allowed to complete his investigation which — despite Trump’s insistence otherwise — is not all about Donald Trump but, instead, about defending our democracy from those who are actively seeking to destroy it.
Whitaker was chosen to end Mueller ‘witch hunt’
So it is beyond question that Matthew Whitaker is not the correct person to oversee Robert Mueller. He has not been appointed so that he can impartially supervise the investigation. He is there to do the president’s bidding and end the “witch hunt.”
It is very wrong that we should be having this conversation at all. In America, law enforcement should not depend on the whims of one person. We should be relying on our laws and institutions to defend our democracy, not the president’s good will. Fortunately, there is a solution ready and waiting to be voted on.
The Senate should pass the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which provides a measure of protection for Mueller’s investigation and ensures that he cannot be removed for political reasons. A Senate committee has already approved the bill on a bipartisan 14-7 vote.
Apart from protecting the current investigation into Russian election meddling, the act makes a lot of sense in general. A special counsel can only be appointed when the Department of Justice itself has a conflict of interest. It seems only reasonable that some checks and balances be in place to ensure that the Justice official supervising the special counsel, whoever it is, cannot remove the special counsel without cause.
While the bill has been reported out of committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote because he believes Trump would not sign it. Perhaps not, but that’s what veto overrides are for. For anyone counting at home, the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act was passed out of committee with a two-thirds majority, which is exactly the majority needed to override a presidential veto.
McConnell has also refused to let the full Senate vote on the bill protecting the investigation because, he has said, “There’s no indication that Mueller’s going to be fired.” Well, Senator McConnell, there is now.
Republicans are at the end of deniability
It seems that the day of reckoning has come. Trump has made no effort to hide his loathing of the Mueller investigation. He even repeated his attacks at his news conference Wednesday morning. He has now fired Sessions entirely because Sessions followed the law and refused to interfere with that investigation. In his place, he has appointed someone who thinks the investigation should be shut down. Trump’s and Whitaker’s intentions could not be more clear if they had declared them on Twitter — which they very well might.
As a Republican, I am not in favor of replacing our elephant mascot with an ostrich. We have now come to the end of deniability. There is no question that Whitaker has been appointed specifically to terminate or throttle the Mueller investigation. So the question for our congressional leadership is this: Which side are you on? Will you stand up for our institutions and defend our democracy? Or do you believe that defending Trump is more important?
The base may judge you harshly if you defy Trump and defend the Mueller investigation by passing the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act. But history will judge you more harshly still if you do not.
Chris Truax, an appellate lawyer in San Diego, is on the legal advisory board of Republicans for the Rule of Law.