Posts

Big Dick Toilets and Sasquatch Dolls: Matt Whitaker’s Qualifications To Be Dog-Catcher

I’ve followed the burgeoning scandal that the guy Trump appointed to play hatchet man to Mueller’s investigation is totally unqualified to be Acting Attorney General. But I’ve already lost track of all the reasons why. So I’m going to try to keep a running list here.

This will be updated as new issues are identified.

Legal problems with the appointment

While Steve Vladeck says it’s legal, and Marty Lederman and Walter Dellinger find OLC’s analysis, concluding that Matt Whitaker’s appointment is legal, to be plausible, a number of commentators disagree. Those include:

These arguments include a mix of constitutional (Appointments Clause) and legal (Vacancies Reform Act and the purpose of DOJ).

Numerous people are already challenging his appointment, including the state of Maryland, three Democratic Senators, and a number of criminal defendants. Quinta Jurecic is collecting all the litigation documents for those challenges here.

Other legal problems

In addition to the Constitutional and legal problems he raises, Neal Katyal also argues that Whitaker cannot legally supervise Mueller’s investigation.

David Kris points out that because of the legal questions surrounding Whitaker’s appointment and the certainty that defendants will challenge it, his appointment will create a whole bunch of downstream problems for DOJ.

A company for which Whitaker served on the board is under investigation by the FBI and FTC. Though Whitaker was subpoenaed by the FTC, he blew off that subpoena. FOIAed records show that Whitaker kept pitching the company even after receiving complaints.

One report on Trump’s efforts to get DOJ to prosecute Hillary Clinton and Jim Comey describes Whitaker prepping discussions about what it was doing in response; he reportedly “did not seem to cross any line,” but it remains to be seen whether that’s true.

Whitaker got four donations amounting to $8,800 to his 2014 Senate run in 2018, after he had started as Sessions’ Chief of Staff, which may amount to a violation of the Hatch Act. Following a complaint from watchdog group American Oversight, the Office of Special Counsel (the DOJ office in charge of reviewing such violations, among other things) opened an investigation into this.

Bureaucratic problems

There may be problems with the way that Whitaker was appointed.

As numerous people have noted, Jeff Sessions did not date his resignation, raising questions about when his authority really passed to Whitaker. (OLC says Sessions resigned on November 7.) Democrats in the House are also suggesting they believe Sessions’ forced resignation counts as a firing, which changes the options Trump would have to replace him under the Vacancies Reform Act.

Chris Geidner has reported that the White House won’t say when Whitaker was formally appointed.

Because Mueller has sought an interview with John Kelly (indeed, he’s a leading candidate to be the Mystery Appellant challenging a subpoena or something else from Mueller), it may be problematic that he played a key role in firing Jeff Sessions.

Conflict problems

Whitaker has a potential conflict with regards to the Mueller investigation tied to his relationship with Sam Clovis, who was in charge of crafting Trump’s outreach to Russia. Whitaker served as Clovis’ campaign manager in 2014.

Then, in a series of appearances Whitaker used to draw Trump’s attention, he commented on the Mueller investigation or the underlying conflict.

In a USAT column on July 5, 2016 and then multiple appearances on July 6, Whitaker suggested Hillary should have been prosecuted, partly by criticizing Jim Comey for making the decision.

On September 30, 2016, Whitaker suggested that if Trump won, he should restart the investigation into Hillary.

On May 19, 2017, Whitaker dismissed the possibility that Trump had committed obstruction of justice by firing Comey.

In July 2017, Whitaker interviewed with Don McGahn to take on the role of legal attack dog discrediting the Mueller investigation.

On July 13, 2017, Whitaker defended Donald Trump Jr taking the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting.

In a CNN interview on July 26, 2017, Whitaker described how you could defund the Special Counsel and thereby end his work.

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

On July 27, 2017, Whitaker said it would be a mistake to provide Mueller any further protection.

On August 4, 2017, Whitaker recommended an article that describes, “with a little planning he could install a true believer to a political position at DOJ—as a sleeper agent—and then (after easing out Sessions) elevate him or her to attorney general.”

On August 6, 2017, Whitaker used the Red Line comment Maggie and Mike teed up to describe Mueller pursuing Trump’s finances as improper.

On August 11, 2017, Whitaker suggested the investigation into Paul Manafort was outside the scope of Mueller’s appointment. In that same appearance, he suggested Mueller had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct.

On August 15, 2017, Whitaker said Mueller’s appointment was a little fishy.

On August 25, 2017, Whitaker suggested searching Manafort’s condo with a dozen agents was designed to intimidate him.

On August 30, 2017, Whitaker suggested Mueller’s investigation was politically motivated and was misusing resources that should be used elsewhere.

In spite of the fact that many of these would seem to pose conflicts that DOJ normally concludes would ethically prohibit Whitaker’s involvement in the Mueller investigation, both Trump and Whitaker appear to have known he would not recuse from the Mueller investigation even before he was appointed, though Trump has claimed (evidence to the contrary) that he didn’t talk to Whitaker about such things before he appointed him.

Financial problems

As noted by CREW when they released Whitaker’s financial disclosures, his disclosures got doctored (or “Kushnered,” as I’m now referring to serial attempts to belatedly fix glaring problems in official disclosures) four times after the time he was appointed AAG.

CREW has already filed a FOIA for those revisions.

What the records show is just as alarming.

The non-profit Whitaker worked at to, first, beat up Hillary Clinton and then audition to kill the Mueller investigation, Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, has obscure funding and genesis. It keeps changing its name. Whitaker’s salary, which went from $63,000 for part time work to $660,000 a year, made up most of its expenditures in the period before he became Sessions’ Chief of Staff. One of the guys listed as a director, James Crumley, claimed not to remember its existence. Another, Noah Wall, didn’t know he was listed as Director. While claiming to be non-partisan, it overwhelmingly attacked Democrats (and Hillary specifically), a possible violation of IRS regulations. As OpenSecrets notes, its funding comes from a black hole pass through, but the organization seems to have ties to other judiciary-related dark money groups.

The 14 companies in Iowa Whitaker worked for (reportedly, past tense) have never filed paperwork noting that, so on paper he still works for them.

In 2016, Whitaker abandoned a taxpayer-funded apartment rehabilitation project, defaulting on loans and hiding from creditors.

World Patent Marketing — the company the FBI is investigating — was totally fraudulent, pretending to help review patents without doing so. Among those the company defrauded are veterans. Among the things it marketed were Big Dick Toilets, Sasquatch dolls, and time travel.

Abuse as (or invoking past history as) US Attorney

Whitaker has already abused his position as a government prosecutor, both while serving and since.

In 2006, he prosecuted a Democratic politico, Matt McCoy and even paid an informant to incriminate him. The jury acquitted McCoy after deliberating for just 25 minutes.

Then, when serving on the advisory board for a World Patent Marketing, he threatened people who complained, including threatening them with legal retribution.

Temperament

Both on his legal views and his other beliefs, Whitaker has a temperament far outside the mainstream.

When running for Senate, Whitaker argued that judges should have a biblical view and said that Marbury v. Madison — the foundation of judicial review in this country — was among the worst Supreme Court decisions.

He was among the US Attorneys who imposed the harshest sentences in drug prosecutions.

Update: Since it has attracted a lot of attention, I owe this title in part to HowdyQuicksell, but the Dog Catcher accusation (which will probably ensure no DOJ spox will ever again return my calls) is my own.

Leo’s Lane: Balls and Strikes versus Checks and Balances

Last week, a group of Federalist Society members kicked off the annual meeting by announcing a new group, calling itself Checks and Balances, led by Kellyanne Conway’s spouse, George.

On its face, it’s not clear what function the group will have, aside from focusing even more attention on George and Kellyanne’s differing views on the President. I assume, however, the statement the 14 lawyers signed is meant to embarrass other conservative lawyers into remembering the principles they lay out in their statement.

We believe in the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse. We believe these principles apply regardless of the part of persons in power. We believe in a “a government of laws, not of men.”

We believe in the Constitution. We believe in free speech, a free press, separation of powers, and limited government. We have faith in the resiliency of the American experiment.

That said, I want to look at a few details of timing and intent.

The WaPo has an article that describes why some of the signers joined the group. Attacks on DOJ, Trump’s cultivation of racists, and attacks on the free press.

As to Conway, though, it focuses on the appointment of Matt Whitaker (though also includes Trump’s claim to want to end birthright citizenship).

Other members have pointed to Trump’s ouster of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and installation of Matthew G. Whitaker as acting attorney general.

Conway, the group organizer, said, “There wasn’t any one thing; it’s a long series of events that made me think that a group like this could do some good.”

Conway has authored a series of articles attacking Trump’s politics, most recently an opinion piece in the New York Times that called Whitaker’s appointment unconstitutional.

“It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid,” Conway wrote. He similarly called the president’s plan to end birthright citizenship unconstitutional.

That’s interesting given the role multiple NYT stories have described Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo had in the hiring of Whitaker. After the NYT almost got Rod Rosenstein fired (probably relying at least in part on Whitaker as a source), it described Leo recommending Whitaker to be Sessions’ Chief of Staff back in 2017.

Leonard Leo, the influential head of the conservative legal organization the Federalist Society who has taken leaves from the role to periodically advise the president since the transition, recommended Mr. Whitaker for his job with Mr. Sessions, according to a person briefed on the job search.

[snip]

“He has the trust and confidence of any number of people within the Justice Department and within the law enforcement community, but also the White House,” Mr. Leo said of Mr. Whitaker.

Installing Whitaker as Chief of Staff last year is one of the reasons Whitaker’s appointment would be legal under the Vacancies Reform Act (though the appointment’s legality is still very much under debate), because it meant he had been in a senior position at DOJ long enough to qualify. And hyping Whitaker at that moment was a key step in prepping his installation after Sessions’ eventual firing.

NYT emphasized again, once Whitaker had been installed, Leo’s role in his installation.

At this point, let me take a detour. Most of the lawyers who signed onto Checks and Balances are thrilled with the way Trump has been packing the court with conservative judges. Which would mean, by extension, they’re thrilled with Leo’s role in the Administration (indeed, in all recent Republican administrations) for the way he has provided the Executive branch a steady supply of vetted conservatives to get approved for lifetime appointments. Conway himself has said Trump “deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. I’ll be the first to clap my hands for it.”

Yet, in the NYT story on the group, Conway suggested that Republicans were so happy with Trump’s success in packing the courts that they overlooked other things like rule of law.

Mr. Conway, who has long been a member of and contributor to the Federalist Society, said he had nothing but admiration for its work. But he added that some conservative lawyers, pleased with Mr. Trump’s record on judicial nominations and deregulation, have been wary of criticizing him in other areas, as when he attacks the Justice Department and the news media.

“There’s a perception out there that conservative lawyers have essentially sold their souls for judges and regulatory reform,” Mr. Conway said. “We just want to be a voice speaking out, and to encourage others to speak out.”

In championing Whitaker, Leo has stepped beyond his traditional role — vetting and supporting judicial candidates — into a different one, which might either be judged as interfering in DOJ’s operations or, more alarmingly and accurately, helping the President (who has succeeded so well at packing the courts) undermine a criminal investigation into his own conduct.

Leonard Leo has stepped outside his lane. And George Conway, at least, is pushing back.

And that’s why I find Leo’s response to the group so interesting. He gave Axios a screed of bullet points talking about how offended he is by the move.

  • “I find the underlying premise of the group rather offensive,” Leo told me. “The idea that somehow they need to have this voice because conservatives are somehow afraid to talk about the rule of law during the Trump administration.”
  • “And my response to that is, no, people aren’t afraid, many people just don’t agree that there’s a constitutional crisis and don’t agree with the people who have signed up with this group.”

Several of those bullet point screeds focused on the Jeff Sessions’ firing.

  • “I measure a president’s sensitivity to the rule of law by his actions, not his off-the-cuff comments, tweets or statements. And the president has obviously had lots of criticisms about former Attorney General Sessions and about the department, but at the end of the day, he hasn’t acted upon those criticisms.
  • “He’s allowed the department to have an awful lot of freedom and independence. … He can say what he wants to say, but at the end of the day, words don’t threaten the rule of law, actions do. I’ve been to 48 countries around the world. I know a constitutional crisis, and I know what a rule of law crisis is. Lots of countries have them. This country doesn’t right now.”

Leo seems to be having fun playing DOJ kingmaker, on top of the great success he has had playing judicial kingmaker under Trump. But it seems at least some conservatives don’t believe that’s his role to play.

Update: I asked Conway about this and got a response after the post was published. He says this is not about Leo at all.

It’s a response to Trump and the need for conservative lawyers generally to say something about him. It’s got nothing to do with Leonard.

Mueller Says He Still Exercises the Full Authority of a US Attorney

Mueller’s team has submitted the supplemental brief Judge Henderson ordered the day after Matt Whitaker was appointed, explaining whether his appointment affects Andrew Miller’s challenge to a subpoena he got back in June.

As to the issue at hand (whether his subpoena of Miller is legal), Mueller says Whitaker’s appointment changes nothing, because everything being challenged pertains to his May 17, 2017 appointment, not anything that happened since.

The President’s designation of Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker on November 7, 2108, has no effect on this case.

[snip]

All of those arguments turn on the May 17, 2017 appointment of the Special Counsel and the legal and regulatory frameworks that existed at the time of appointment. None of those arguments is affected by the change in the identity of the Acting Attorney General while this case is on appeal.

But the brief is interesting because it is the first opportunity Mueller has had to lay out how he understands what happened and how Whitaker’s appointment affects his authority.

As to what happened, Mueller makes no contest that Jeff Sessions resigned.

On November 7, 2018, Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions resigned from office

Democrats in the House are contesting that, but Mueller is not.

Nor does Mueller question the validity of the OLC conclusion that Whitaker’s appointment is legal.

The Office of Legal Counsel has determined that the designation of the Acting Attorney General is valid as a statutory and constitutional matter. See Office of Legal Counsel, Designating an Acting Attorney General (Nov. 14, 2018), https://www.justice.gov/olc/file/1112251/download. I

None of that is surprising. He works for DOJ and it’s not his place to challenge what DOJ says about DOJ.

What’s more interesting (though not at all controversial) is that Mueller maintains he still has the full authority of a US Attorney.

Similarly, by regulation, the Special Counsel has and continues to “exercise, within the scope of his or her jurisdiction, the full power and independent authority to exercise all investigative and prosecutorial functions of any United States Attorney.” 28 C.F.R. § 600.6; see United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 695 (1974) (“So long as [a] regulation is extant it has the force of law.”).

He relies on US v. Nixon to lay out what it will take to withdraw that authority: changing the regulations he operates under.

Perhaps most important, though, is that Mueller argues that Whitaker’s appointment cannot change the validity of the subpoena (and, one would assume by extension, anything else) that occurred before Whitaker’s appointment.

Because the subpoenas here issued under the signature of the Special Counsel’s Office long before the change in the identity of the Acting Attorney General, that change cannot affect the validity of the subpoenas. And the designation of a different Acting Attorney General while the case is on appeal cannot vitiate the district court’s order holding Miller in contempt.

This would seem to suggest that if Mueller has anything banked — sealed indictments or complaints — then he holds that nothing changes their validity or the DC District’s authority to preside over them.

He also maintains that he retains the authority to appear before the Court.

Second, the change in identity of the Acting Attorney General has no effect on the Special Counsel’s authority to appear in this case. The Special Counsel continues to hold his office despite the change in the identity of the Acting Attorney General.

This would be what he would need to unseal any existing indictments.

None of that is that controversial. But it does make it clear that he views his authority to continue unchecked even with Trump’s hatchet man in place.

What OLC Says Happened with Matt Whitaker’s Appointment

DOJ has released the memo they say justifies the appointment of Matt Whitaker to be their boss. I’ll have some things to say about the legal arguments later (and smarter people who have JDs will surely weigh in as well).

I’d like to look at four things the OLC memo says about what happened with the Whitaker appointment, because they’re at least as important as the legal argument.

Never in the history of DOJ has someone attempted this stunt

Much of the memo reviews the history of appointments, purporting to find analogous appointments to this one. But it only cites one example where someone who wasn’t Senate confirmed served as Acting Attorney General.

While designations to the office of Attorney General were less frequent, we have identified at least one period in 1866 when a non-Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General served as Acting Attorney General.

The Department of Justice didn’t exist in 1866. It was only authorized — significantly, for the purpose of giving the Attorney General supervision over the US Attorneys — in 1870.

In 1861, Congress finally agreed that the Attorney General should have supervisory powers over the work of the United States Attorneys, although at first this role was shared with the Solicitor of the Treasury.

While there had been earlier calls for the creation of a separate legal department that would supervise the work of federal lawyers, it was not until after the end of the Civil War that Congress began to give serious consideration to the matter. In late 1867, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary asked Attorney General Henry Stanbery to respond to several questions concerning the efficiency of the government’s legal departments. Stanbery replied that a solicitor general was needed to argue the government’s cases before the Supreme Court, and that the centralization of the government’s legal business under one department would improve the quality of the work. In 1868, after the House Judiciary Committee asked Stanbery to respond to a similar inquiry, Representative Thomas Jenckes of Rhode Island introduced a bill to establish a department of justice. This bill was referred to the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment, a committee impaneled to consider legislation to reduce the size and cost of government. In addition, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative William Lawrence of Ohio, introduced a similar bill which was referred to that committee.

As I’ll return to when I get to the legal issues, the distinction between this appointment, which gives Whitaker supervisory authority over SDNY and Mueller, and that one, may be very important.

But for now, suffice it to say that even OLC admits that this has almost never happened before.

The White House asked for this opinion

I’ve been harping on this line of the CNN report describing Jeff Sessions and those who would like to protect the Mueller investigation a lot.

At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional.

Steven Engel, the guy who signed this memo, was in that room, along with Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, and Rosenstein’s deputy Ed O’Callaghan. The story suggests that Engel hadn’t considered the question yet, and I’ve been wondering since that report whether one of those men asked for the memo.

They didn’t — at least not according to this memo.

This Office had previously advised that the President could designate a senior Department of Justice official, such as Mr. Whitaker, as Acting Attorney General, and this memorandum explains the basis for that conclusion.

It is addressed to the “Counsel to the President,” which strongly implies that person asked for the memo. It doesn’t say, however, when the Counsel to the President asked for this memorandum.

Emmet Flood is the Counsel to the President who asked for this opinion

More specifically, the memo is addressed to Emmet T. Flood Counsel to the President.

Emmet Flood has two roles in the White House now. Until Pat Cipollone is installed as White House Counsel, Flood is Acting White House Counsel (or, as addressed here, Counsel to the President, which is how OLC addresses the White House Counsel).

But he’s also the lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office in charge of defending the President in investigations by (among others) Robert Mueller.

Legally, that’s interesting but (because the President can appoint whoever the fuck he wants as White House Counsel) not all that important. But it does answer the question I keep asking — given what a clusterfuck this appointment is, was Emmet Flood, who is eminently competent, involved? Yes — at least by the time the White House realized they needed some legal cover for it.

So maybe Flood really was hoping to create a legal morass.

Jeff Sessions resigned, probably

Finally, the memo answers a question that the House Judiciary Committee has already raised some doubt about: whether Sessions resigned, or was fired. The memo explains,

Attorney General Sessions submitted his resignation “[a]t [the President’s] request,” Letter for President Donald J. Trump, from Jefferson B. Sessions III, Attorney General, but that does not alter the fact that the Attorney General “resign[ed]” within the meaning of section 3345(a).

But it doesn’t seem so sure (or at least recognizes that someone, and probably not just HJC, will challenge this legally). It continues:

Even if the Attorney General had declined to resign and was removed by the President, he still would have been rendered “otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office” for purposes of section 3345(a).

As I’ll return to in the legal analysis, the remainder of the footnote, which claims the Vacancies Reform Act still would have permitted the appointment of Whitaker, is one of the most problematic parts of the memo.

Which is why it is notable that the memo dodges most analysis of whether a forced resignation really is legally a resignation.

WSJ’s Curious Mueller Editorial

I want to look back at something that has been puzzling me: a Wall Street Journal editorial issued by the end of the day Wednesday arguing that Mueller should not be fired. The next day, Rupert Murdoch paid Mitch McConnell a personal visit on the Hill.

While not as shrill or fact-free as its columnist, Kim Strassel, the WSJ editorial page has been steadily critical of the Mueller investigation, dismissing any possibility it will identify “collusion” and repeating GOP claims that it as sprawled beyond Mueller’s original remit (as well as parroting GOP claims that the FBI framed the Trump campaign). A column on the Paul Manafort plea deal, for example, warned that leaks from the investigation (which have never happened) would undermine public confidence in the investigation.

Leaks or other news about his investigation will undermine public confidence in a probe that has already wandered far from its original Russia remit and has now lasted 16 months without a resolution.

So it’s not like WSJ has been friendly to the Mueller investigation.

That said, their columns on the Mueller investigation as frequently criticize Trump’s incompetence in dealing with it and DOJ. That sentiment shows up in the two most relevant recent editorial columns on the investigation. This column from late August argues that Trump’s attacks on Jeff Sessions put Republican majorities at risk in November, which would lead to impeachment.

We will point out that Mr. Trump’s attacks on his own Attorney General this week are wrong and politically counterproductive.

The President is still furious that Mr. Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, which has since become the sprawling Robert Mueller investigation that threatens his Presidency. But railing against Mr. Sessions can’t change that, and it gives the appearance of trying to politicize the department.

[snip]

The biggest political threat to Mr. Trump is a Democratic election victory in November, which will trigger a drive for impeachment. Mr. Trump isn’t going to persuade anyone to vote for Republicans by railing against a Republican Attorney General he selected.

And this September column about the possibility of firing Rosenstein emphasizes the impact that would have on Republican majorities.

The immediate battle now is over the midterm election and whether Mr. Trump can stay in office as the impeachment assault begins from Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. Mr. Trump can make personnel changes after the midterms if Republicans still hold the Senate and he can get someone confirmed.

Murdoch’s American flagship paper doesn’t like the Mueller investigation. But that has as much to do with the ways it leads Trump to do stupid things that imperil Republican rule as that it poses a risk for Trump personally.

With that as background, consider the column. It starts by complaining (again) about how badly Trump treated Sessions.

Mr. Sessions deserved better than the public humiliations dealt by President Trump. As a Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions was the first Washington figure of any stature to embrace Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Trump wants loyalty up but not down.

It then describes the appointment of Matt Whitaker without comment or judgment.

Sessions’ temporary successor will be the AG’s chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who presumably will hold the job until a successor is nominated.

Most of the column argues for a solid Attorney General replacement. The WSJ seems to be complaining — as they did in some of their other editorials — that the White House should exercise more influence over DOJ. They do want someone respectable as Attorney General, however.

It is important that the White House get this one right.

The Attorney General shouldn’t fire Mr. Mueller, as the President essentially said himself at his Wednesday news conference. Mr. Trump needs an individual of stature and judgment who will have the trust of the department’s lawyers, who is capable of independence, but who also understands that the Justice Department is part of the executive branch and not a law unto itself.

But the WSJ, with as little comment as it makes about Whitaker, also states clearly that any new Attorney General shouldn’t fire Mueller and claims Trump himself has agreed, probably a reference to this answer from Trump at the press conference that day.

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  Going back to the Russia investigation and the potential investigations from the now- Democratic majority in Congress, some say that you could stop all this by declassifying —

THE PRESIDENT:  I could.  I could fire everybody right now.  But I don’t want to stop it, because politically, I don’t like stopping it.  It’s a disgrace.  It should have never been started because there was no crime.  It is — everybody has conflicts.  They all have conflicts over there that are beyond anything that anybody has ever seen in terms of conflicts — from the fact that people ask for jobs; from the fact that they have very good friends on the other side, like really good friends, like Comey — who, by the way, lied and leaked, and also leaked classified information.  Nothing happened there.  It might, perhaps.  Maybe something is happening that I don’t know about.

I stay away from it.  But do you know what I do?  I let it just go on.  They’re wasting a lot of money, but I let it go on because I don’t want to do that.

The day after the election, Trump took a rash step to end the Mueller investigation by firing Sessions and hiring Whitaker. And WSJ almost immediately responded by warning Trump not to do any further damage to the party with his impulsive efforts to undermine Mueller.

Did Emmet Flood Mean to Create a Legal Morass, or Is He Off His Game?

As I’ve often said, Trump departed from his usual habit by hiring Emmet Flood, someone who is eminently qualified to help the President (or, as he did with Cheney, Vice President) stave off legal jeopardy from a Special Counsel or Congress. Which is why I’m trying to figure out whether the legal morass Trump created — presumably on Flood’s advice, given that Flood is serving as both the Mueller investigation White House Counsel lead and, until Pat Cipollone gets fully cleared, White House Counsel generally — by forcing Jeff Sessions’ resignation and replacing him with Matt Whitaker.

It’s not clear when Sessions’ authority ended

Start with the fact that it’s not clear when Jeff Sessions stopped acting as Attorney General. As numerous people have noted, he didn’t date the copy of his resignation letter that got released publicly.

He left DOJ in ceremonial fashion just after 5 PM on Wednesday night, which would suggest he may have remained AG until that time. If that’s right, then anything that Mueller and Rosenstein did that day would still operate under the older authority.

Indeed, DOJ issued an order under Sessions’ authority, imposing new limits on consent decrees used to reign in abusive local police departments, yesterday evening, a full day after he departed. He initialed it (dated 11/7/18), but the metadata on it shows the document wasn’t created until almost 5PM on Wednesday and was modified over a full day after that. (h/t zedster)

So he was at least still AG sometime after 4:53PM on Wednesday — and possibly well after that — or this consent decree policy is void.

Whitaker’s appointment may not be legal

Then there are the proliferating number of people — most prominently Neal Katyal and George Conway but also including John Yoo and Jed Sugarman — who believe his appointment is unconstituional.

There are two bases on which this might be true. First, the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions may in fact be a legal firing, something the House Judiciary Democrats are arguing with increasing stridency, most recently in a letter to Bob Goodlatte asking that he hold an emergency hearing on Sessions’ ouster, support legislation protecting Mueller, and join in requests for information about the ouster from the White House and DOJ. If Sessions was fired, there’s little question that Trump can only replace him with someone who is Senate confirmed.

But Katyal, Conway, and others argue that because the AG is a principal officer, whoever serves in that position must be Senate confirmed. Significantly, the Katyal/Conway argument begins by throwing what Steven Calabresi has said back at conservatives.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

This is probably why people like Yoo are joining in this argument — because if Whitaker’s appointment is legal, than a whole slew of other appointments of the kind that conservatives hate would also be legal.

Whitaker may be disabled with conflicts

Then there are Whitaker’s conflicts, which are threefold. Whitaker:

  • Repeatedly claimed that the Mueller probe was out of control, in spite of the fact he had no real information to base that on
  • Judged that Trump had neither “colluded” nor committed obstruction
  • Not only undermined the investigation, but suggested the underlying conduct — including meeting with Russians to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton at the June 9 meeting — was totally cool
  • Served as Sam Clovis’ campaign manager in 2014; Clovis was a key player in Trump’s efforts to cozy up to the Russians in 2016 and was one of the earliest known witnesses to testify before the grand jury

CNN captures many of these statements here.

The Clovis one may be the most important. 28 CFR 45.2 requires ethics exemption or recusal if a person has a political relationship with the subject of an investigation.

[N]o employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with:

(1) Any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; or

Defining “political relationship” to include service as a principal advisor to a candidate.

Political relationship means a close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof;

And, as Mueller noted in their response to Andrew Miller’s appeal, recusal would amount to a “disability” that would put the DAG back in charge.

Finally, interpreting “disability” under Section 508 to include recusal makes logical and practical sense. Section 528 requires the Attorney General to recuse himself when he has a conflict of interest. Section 508 ensures that at all times an officer is heading the Department of Justice. If the Attorney General is recused, it is necessary that someone can head the Department for that investigation. It is inconceivable that Congress intended Section 508 to reach physical disability, but not to reach legal requirements that disabled the Attorney General from participating in certain matters.

Whitaker’s former company is under FBI investigation

Then there’s the news that a company for which Whitaker provided legal services is under criminal investigation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal investigation of a Florida company accused of scamming millions from customers during the period that Matthew Whitaker, the acting U.S. attorney general, served as a paid advisory-board member, according to an alleged victim who was contacted by the FBI and other people familiar with the matter.

The investigation is being handled by the Miami office of the FBI and by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, according to an email sent to the alleged victim last year by an FBI victim specialist. A recording on a phone line set up by the Justice Department to help victims said Friday the case remains active.

When Whitaker was subpoenaed, he blew it off.

Whitaker, named this week by President Trump as acting attorney general, occasionally served as an outside legal adviser to the company, World Patent Marketing, writing a series of letters on its behalf, according to people familiar with his role.

But he rebuffed an October 2017 subpoena from the Federal Trade Commission seeking his records related to the company, according to two people with knowledge of the case.

But the public record shows that when customers complained, Whitaker threatened them, invoking his background as a former US Attorney.

In emails uncovered by the FTC investigation, Whitaker personally threatened a customer who complained, according to a story in the Miami New Times that was picked up by other news outlets.

The emails the FTC obtained, in fact, suggests Whitaker used his background as a U.S. attorney to try to silence customers who claimed they were defrauded by the company and sought to take their complaints public.

In this case, Whitaker sent an intimidating email to a customer on August 25, 2015, who had contacted World Patent Marketing with his grievances and and filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

The FTC docket reviewed by New Times contains an email exchange on page 362 of 400 that described what happened next.

Rather than expressing concern about the customer’s charge of being cheated,  Whitaker wrote him to let him know that he, Whitaker, was “a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois…Your emails and message from today seem to be an apparent attempt at possible blackmail or extortion.”

“You also mentioned filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and to smear WPM’s reputation online. I am assuming you know that there could be serious civil and criminal consequences for you if that is in fact what you and your ‘group’ is doing. Understand we take threats like this quite seriously…Please conduct yourself accordingly.”

This doesn’t necessarily impact the Mueller probe itself. But it suggests that Whitaker has real corruption problems that will undermine his actions as AG.

Trump and Whitaker may have spoken about the Mueller probe — and Trump is already lying about it

Shortly after Whitaker was appointed, WaPo reported that Trump told multiple people that Whitaker was “loyal” and wouldn’t recuse.

Trump has told advisers that Whitaker is loyal and would not have recused himself from the investigation, current and former White House officials said.

Then WaPo reported that Whitaker has no intention of recusing, reporting that would necessarily predate any discussion with DOJ’s ethical advisors.

Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special-counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Trump as part of that investigation.

[snip]

On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he does not plan to take himself off the Russia case. They also said he is deeply skeptical of any effort to force the president’s testimony through a subpoena.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been negotiating for months with Trump’s attorneys over the terms of a possible interview of the president. Central to those discussions has been the idea that Mueller could, if negotiations failed, subpoena the president. If Whitaker were to take the threat of a subpoena off the table, that could alter the equilibrium between the two sides and significantly reduce the chances that the president ever sits for an interview.

Meanwhile, when asked today, Trump claimed (in spite of all the briefings Whitaker has attended in recent weeks) that he didn’t know him, even though he went on Fox and hailed him after the most recent attempt to use him to kill the Mueller probe.

“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left Washington for a weekend trip to Paris. But the president stressed that he did know Mr. Whitaker’s reputation well, calling him “a very respected man.”

[snip]

In addition, the president’s claim that he did not know Mr. Whitaker was called into question by Mr. Trump’s own words from just about a month ago, when he said in a “Fox & Friends” interview: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”

Mr. Whitaker has also visited the Oval Office several times and is said to have an easy chemistry with the president, according to people familiar with the relationship. And the president has regarded Mr. Whitaker as his eyes and ears at the Justice Department.

As CNN notes, Whitaker seemed to have been actively plotting for his boss’ job since the NYT stupidly tried to get Rosenstein fired (which I suspect means Whitaker was a source for the NYT).

A source close to Sessions says that the former attorney general realized that Whitaker was “self-dealing” after reports surfaced in September that Whitaker had spoken with Kelly and had discussed plans to become the No. 2 at the Justice Department if Rosenstein was forced to resign.

In recent months, with his relationship with the President at a new low, Sessions skipped several so-called principals meetings that he was slated to attend as a key member of the Cabinet. A source close to Sessions says that neither the attorney general nor Trump thought it was a good idea for Sessions to be at the White House, so he sent surrogates.

Whitaker was one of them.

But Sessions did not realize Whitaker was having conversations with the White House about his future until the news broke in late September about Rosenstein.

All of this raises huge questions about whether Whitaker and Trump (or Kelly) had an agreement in place, that he would get this post (and shortly after be nominated for a judgeship in IA), so long as he would agree to kill the Mueller probe.

Debates over the legality of Whitaker’s appointment parallel challenges to Mueller’s authority

Then there’s the point I raised earlier today. If Whitaker’s appointment is legal, then so is Mueller’s, which undercuts one of the other efforts to undermine Mueller’s authority.

Whitaker’s nomination really undermines the arguments that Miller and Concord Management (who argued as an amici) were making about Mueller’s appointment, particularly their argument that he is a principal officer and therefore must be Senate confirmed, an argument that relies on one that Steven Calabresi made this spring. Indeed, Neal Katyal and George Conway began their argument that Whitaker’s appointment is illegal by hoisting Calabresi on his petard.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

While it may be true (as Conway argued at the link) that Calabresi’s arguments are wrong for Mueller, if they’re right for Mueller, then they’re all the more true for Whitaker. So if Mueller should have been Senate confirmed, then Whitaker more obviously would need to be.

John Kelly’s involvement may (and I suspect does) present added conflicts

Then there’s John Kelly’s role, as someone who had a key role in the firing but whose testimony Mueller is currently pursuing (possibly via subpoena).

Kelly is among the people about whom there is the most active dispute legal between the Special Counsel and the White House, a fight picked by the legally competent Emmet Flood.

And Kelly was the person who forced Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday. As far as is public (and there’s surely a great deal that we have yet to learn about who was in the decision to force Sessions to resign and when that happened and who dictated the form it would take).

But Kelly had the key role of conveying the President’s intent, in whatever form that intent was documented, to Sessions. If Trump’s past firings are any precedent, Kelly had a very big role in deciding how it would happen.

So the guy whose testimony Mueller may be most actively pursuing (indeed, one who might even be in a legal dispute with), effectuated a plan to undercut Mueller’s plans going forward.

CNN provides more context for Kelly’s role, showing him to be involved in the last attempt to install Whitaker and suggesting that Kelly consulted Trump before refusing Sessions’ request to stay through the week.

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, asked Sessions to submit his resignation, according to multiple sources briefed on the call. Sessions agreed to comply, but he wanted a few more days before the resignation would become effective. Kelly said he’d consult the President.

[snip]

Rosenstein and [PDAAG Ed] O’Callaghan, the highest-ranked officials handling day-to-day oversight of Mueller’s investigation, urged Sessions to delay the effective date of his resignation.

Soon, Whitaker strode into Sessions’ office and asked to speak one-on-one to the attorney general; the others left the two men alone. It was a brief conversation. Shortly after, Sessions told his huddle that his resignation would be effective that day.

O’Callaghan had tried to appeal to Sessions, noting that he hadn’t heard back about whether the President would allow a delay. At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional. Someone also reminded Sessions that the last time Whitaker played a role in a purported resignation — a few weeks earlier in September, with Rosenstein — the plan collapsed.

Sessions never heard in person from the President — the man who gained television fame for his catch-phrase “You’re fired” doesn’t actually like such confrontation and prefers to have others do the firing, people close to the President say. Kelly called Sessions a second time to tell him the President had rejected his request for a delay.

Nevertheless, a guy Mueller is trying to interview was right there in the loop, making two efforts to install someone whose sole apparent job is to undercut Mueller.

Everything Whitaker touches may turn to shit

Now, maybe Flood would still have bought off on this — though the multiple reports now claim no one at the White House knew about Whitaker’s problems suggest he may not have been in the vetting loop (because, again, he’s competent and knows the import of vetting).

But there’s one more thing to account for. Everything Whitaker touches may turn to legal shit. It’s a point Katyal and Conway make.

President Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.

This appointment could embroil DOJ in legal challenges for years, at least, as plaintiffs and defendants claim that DOJ took some action against them that can only be authorized by a legal Attorney General.

While I don’t think it’s likely, it’s possible that’s the point. As I noted earlier, on Thursday Mueller’s team seemed to be staking a claim that they can continue to operate as they have been.

But their authority, or at least Mueller’s and the others who aren’t AUSAs temporarily reassigned to Mueller, all stems from a legally valid Attorney General or Acting one. If Mueller continues to operate while the legally problematic Whitaker claims to authorize them, what does that do for their actions?

That may be why the DC Circuit wants more (public) briefing on this question in the Andrew Miller case. By appointing a totally inappropriate AG, Trump might just be pursuing his longterm strategy of chaos.

Is this Don McGahn’s last fuck-up?

This entire post is premised on two things: first, that Emmet Flood is among the rare people in Trump’s orbit who is very competent. It also assumes that because both these issues — White House Counsel until Cipollone takes over, and White House Counsel in charge of protecting Trump from the Mueller investigation — would fall solidly in Flood’s portfolios, he would have a significant role in the plot.

Perhaps not. Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo is claiming (in a CNN report that should be read in its entirety) he worked on the plan with Don McGahn.

Leonard Leo, the influential executive vice president of the Federalist Society, recommended to then-White House counsel Don McGahn that Whitaker would make a good chief of staff for Sessions.

“I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons,” Leo said Friday.

So maybe this scheme was, instead, planned out by Don McGahn (who has been officially gone since October 17).

But that would raise questions of its own — notably, why this plan was on ice for so long. And why Flood wasn’t in the loop (and why the White House continues to neglect the most basic vetting of people they put in charge of huge parts of our government).

I expect basic competence out of Emmet Flood. But this whole scheme could only be judged competent if the point was to totally discredit anything DOJ does, including but not limited to the Mueller probe.

John Kelly’s Legally Fraught Role in the Sessions Ouster

Much attention is now being focused on the suitability of Matt Whitaker to server as Acting AG without having been Senate approved. I think there’s one more issue with it that I’ll return to.

But there’s another legally problematic part of the process of forcing Jeff Sessions to resign and appointing Whitaker as his replacement: John Kelly’s role in it.

That’s because Mueller asked John Kelly for an interview sometime around June. It was one of the first things the legally competent Emmet Flood did to assert a newly combative stance on the part of the White House.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers are quietly more combative, too, contesting a request from the special counsel to interview John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Emmet T. Flood, the lead White House lawyer in dealing with the investigation, has demanded to know what investigators want to ask Mr. Kelly and has tried to narrow the scope of their questions. A month after the request was made, Mr. Kelly has not been questioned, though a White House official said he was willing to be.

Significantly, this was not an Executive Privilege claim, but rather a demand that Mueller tell Flood what questions he would ask Kelly. It’s entirely unclear what basis Flood invoked legally: the bullshit Executive Privilege without claiming it claims Trump has relied on thus far, an argument that he needed to know if the President would invoke Executive Privilege in response to a range of questions, or a stance that the White House can have some kind of visibility into the workings of the grand jury investigating the President.

As I have said, I think John Kelly is a likely candidate to be the Mystery Appellant, challenging some kind of Mueller demand in the DC Circuit (significantly, before some of the same judges who yesterday heard Andrew Miller’s subpoena challenge).

One way or another, Kelly is among the people about whom there is the most active dispute legal between the Special Counsel and the White House, a fight picked by the legally competent Emmet Flood.

And Kelly was the person who forced Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday. As far as is public (and there’s surely a great deal that we have yet to learn about who was in the decision to force Sessions to resign and when that happened and who dictated the form it would take).

But Kelly had the key role of conveying the President’s intent, in whatever form that intent was documented, to Sessions. If Trump’s past firings are any precedent, Kelly had a very big role in deciding how it would happen.

So the guy whose testimony Mueller may be most actively pursuing (indeed, one who might even be in a legal dispute with), effectuated a plan to undercut Mueller’s plans going forward.

That seems to create a whole slew of other potential legal problems no one has yet considered.

Trump Risks that Every Action Matt Whitaker Takes as Attorney General Can Be Legally Challenged

George Conway (Kellyanne’s spouse, whom Trump considered to be Solicitor General) continues his habit of criticizing Trump from a conservative legal stance. This time, he joins Neal Katyal, author of the Special Counsel regulations under which Mueller operates, to argue that Trump’s appointment of Matt Whitaker is unconstitutional because Trump can’t name someone who hasn’t been Senate confirmed when a Senate confirmed candidate is available. The whole op-ed — which relies on a recent Clarence Thomas concurrence — is worth reading, but my favorite line is where they call Whitaker a constitutional nobody.

We cannot tolerate such an evasion of the Constitution’s very explicit, textually precise design. Senate confirmation exists for a simple, and good, reason. Constitutionally, Matthew Whitaker is a nobody. His job as Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff did not require Senate confirmation. (Yes, he was confirmed as a federal prosecutor in Iowa, in 2004, but President Trump can’t cut and paste that old, lapsed confirmation to today.) For the president to install Mr. Whitaker as our chief law enforcement officer is to betray the entire structure of our charter document.

I’m just as interested in what three rising Democratic House Chairs (House Judiciary Committee’s Jerrold Nadler, HPSCI’s Adam Schiff, and Oversight and Government Reform’s Elijah Commings) did, along with Dianne Feinstein. In the wake of Jeff Sessions’ resignation, they sent letters to every relevant department warning them to preserve all records on the Mueller investigation and Sessions’ departure. In their press release, they referred to Sessions departure not as a resignation, but as a firing.

Last night, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA), Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein sent letters to top Administration officials demanding the preservation of all documents and materials relevant to the work of the Office of the Special Counsel or the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In their letters, the Members wrote:  “Committees of the United States Congress are conducting investigations parallel to those of the Special Counsel’s office, and preservation of records is critical to ensure that we are able to do our work without interference or delay. Committees will also be investigating Attorney General Sessions’ departure. We therefore ask that you immediately provide us with all orders, notices, and guidance regarding preservation of information related to these matters and investigations.”

Letters were sent to the White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Robert Khuzami, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, NSA Director Paul Nakasone, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, and Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. [my emphasis]

Even the letters themselves, while they don’t use the word “firing,” emphasize the involuntary nature of Sessions’ ouster.

Our understanding is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been removed at the request of the President. We ask that you confirm that the Justice Department has preserved all materials of related to any investigations by the Special Counsel’s office, including any related investigations conducted by any component of the Justice Department. We also ask that you preserve all the materials related to the departure of Attorney General Sessions.

While it’s not clear whether they more basis to believe this was a firing rather than a resignation, they’re proceeding as if it was, legally, a firing. That’s crucial because the only way that Whitaker’s appointment, as someone who is not Senate confirmed, would be legal under the Vacancies Reform Act is if Sessions legally resigned. The Democrats seem to suspect they can argue he did not.

And that’s important because (as Katyal and Conway argue) if his appointment is not legal, than nothing he does as Attorney General is valid.

President Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.

Plus, by demanding preservation of the records and framing this in terms that suggest Whitaker’s appointment was not legal (I’m not sure I agree, but encourage HJC to ask Katyal and Conway to argue the case for them), HJC lays out a basis to claim standing to challenge this, particularly if and when Whitaker makes a decision (such as preventing HJC from obtaining any report Mueller writes) that will cause them injury as an independent branch of government.

Again, I’m not sure I agree with the Katyal/Conway legal argument, though if HJC can prove that Sessions was fired then it’s clear Whitaker was not legally appointed. But these two challenges pose a real risk for Trump. It risks not just decisions pertaining to the Mueller investigation, but even things like surveillance approvals, can be challenged by anyone harmed by them (who gets notice of it). That’s an unbelievable risk for a position as important as Attorney General.

Back when a guy named Robert Mueller had his FBI tenure extended two years in 2011, Tom Coburn worried that even that action, done with Senate approval, would make the approvals Mueller made under Section 215 (this was before we knew the scope of the phone dragnet) legally suspect.

Could you envision colorable challenge to use of 215 authority during your 2 year extension of power?

While I have no problem with you staying on for two more years, I do have concerns we could get mired in court battles [over 215] that would make you ineffective in your job.

Coburn was worried about one (or a few) surveillance programs. The Attorney General touches far more than the FBI Director, and Trump’s DOJ could spend just as much time in court trying to defend the actions of his hatchetman.

And it looks like both the author of the statute governing Mueller’s appointment and the people who will oversee DOJ in a few months have real questions about the legality of Whitaker’s appointment.

Has This Been the Plan Since August 2017?

Maggie Haberman just observed that Jeff Sessions’ resignation letter is not dated. (Update: NYCSouthpaw actually noted that before Maggie did.) While some of the details in it — such as his claim to have “prosecuted the largest number of violent offenders and firearm defendants in our nation’s history” — seem to reflect the full 22 months of his tenure, nothing in it clearly marks it as having been written today. So I think that is what probably happened.

But there’s a scenario that makes me wonder whether this isn’t what Trump has been planning since July 2017, the last time Trump got really furious with Jeff Sessions.

Consider this timeline:

July 19, 2017: Maggie and Mike tee up a question (obviously working from the White House script) about how investigating Trump’s finances would represent crossing a red line.

On July 25 and 26, 2017, Trump took to Twitter to bitch about Sessions.

July 26, 2017: In a CNN interview, Whitaker describes how you could defund the Special Counsel and thereby end his work.

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

On July 27, 2017, Whitaker said it would be a mistake to provide Mueller any further protection.

August 4, 2017: Whitaker recommends an article that describes, “with a little planning he could install a true believer to a political position at DOJ—as a sleeper agent—and then (after easing out Sessions) elevate him or her to attorney general.”

August 6, 2017: Whitaker uses the Red Line comment Maggie and Mike teed up to describe Mueller pursuing Trump’s finances as improper.

On August 25, 2017, Whitaker suggested searching Manafort’s condo with a dozen agents was designed to intimidate him.

On September 22, 2017, Whitaker was hired to be Sessions’ Chief of Staff.

In other words, Trump may have been pursuing this plan since July 2017.

If so, then Mueller may have already anticipated that, because he asked four questions about that episode in March, as well as questions about what he did in response to Sessions’ earlier recusal.

  • What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?
  • What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind?
  • Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?
  • What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?
  • Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?
  • What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?
  • What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?
  • What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions?

Whatever it was, Trump obtained Sessions’ resignation before today’s press conference, so it’s possible Whitaker already tried to move against Mueller today, relying on the ground work he laid over a year ago.

The one thing that would suggest otherwise is the plea deal Manafort entered. I’ve argued that it is pardon proof, partly because it would include state charges and partly because Manafort would lose all his ill-gotten gains if Trump didn’t pardon him first. For reasons I won’t write up yet, I’m not sure that’s entirely true (though Manafort has provided a lot of information in the last several months).

That’d be way better planning than Trump has pulled off on any other thing. But then, protecting himself is the thing he’s best at.

Update: I’ve added a few things to this timeline.

Update: According to John Q Barrett, who spent some time in the CNN Green Room last year, his entire point for going on CNN was to curry favor with Trump.

Whitaker told me in June 2017 that he was flying out from Iowa to NYC to be on CNN regularly because he was hoping to be noticed as a Trump defender, and through that to get a Trump judicial appointment back in Iowa.

And this (very detailed) WaPo piece describes Trump as telling aides he would not recuse, which raises questions about whether Whitaker told him so directly.

Trump has told advisers that Whitaker is loyal and would not have recused himself from the investigation, current and former White House officials said.

Matt Whitaker Can’t Prevent Mueller from Unsealing Any Sealed Indictments

After spending a 1.5 hour press conference denying he “colluded” with Russia, Trump just proved he did by forcing Jeff Sessions to resign. He announced Sessions’ Chief of Staff, Matt Whitaker, will be the Acting Attorney General. DOJ has already announced Whitaker will take over oversight of the Mueller investigation. Before he was even hired as CoS, Whitaker pointed to the Red Line Trump’s stenographers at the NYT teed up for him, suggested Mueller had crossed it, and that that represented going too far.

He has also laid out how to kill the Mueller investigation — by defunding it.

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

It’s all going as I predicted it might in this TNR piece last week.

All that said, Mueller was surely expecting just such an eventuality. And the fact that they got Roger Stone attorney Tyler Nixon to testify Friday suggests they were prepping for it, getting the last bit of evidence against Stone in place.

The only question is whether they got the grand jury to approve whatever indictments they were working on. I’d be surprised if Mueller didn’t (unless Rod Rosenstein prevented him from doing so).

If that’s the case, then Whitaker is not going to help Trump get out of his legal troubles. That’s because Chief Judge Beryl Howell, not Whitaker, will make the decision about unsealing anything sealed in this grand jury investigation.

So if Mueller prepared for this very predictable eventuality, then Trump may have just fired a key player in his racist agenda for naught.