Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said Wednesday he has no plans for now to call a hearing on the appointment of acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, saying the president has yet to nominate a permanent replacement for the job and “any hearing would be premature.”
“While the Senate is never a rubber stamp for any president, the Senate historically gives more deference to a president on Cabinet picks,” Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter addressed to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. “I look forward to working with the President on the confirmation effort for whomever the President nominates. As is the case with all executive nominations that come to the Judiciary Committee, a confirmation hearing will be announced after the President makes his nomination.”
Grassley’s decision comes a day after Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate panel, requested a hearing be held “as quickly as possible” with Whitaker and ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was forced to resign last week.
Democrats have questioned whether Whitaker’s appointment is legal or if he would do anything to obstruct special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 election, a probe Whitaker previously has criticized.
In his letter, Grassley said he continues to support Mueller’s investigation advancing to “its prompt conclusion,” and remains confident “that whoever oversees that investigation will do so with the best interests of the investigation in mind.”
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Ankeny who has long been involved in Iowa’s political circles, was thrust into the national spotlight last week after he was chosen by President Donald Trump to temporarily lead the Justice Department following Sessions’ ouster.
Since then, he also has faced criticisms over his role as an advisory board member of a company that’s being investigated by the FBI for fraud.
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Whitaker was back in Iowa for two events on Wednesday, speaking at a Des Moines conferences about justice issues, violent crime and opioid abuse. The acting attorney general made no comments on the circumstances of his appointment, nor did he take questions from reporters.
Instead, Whitaker applauded the Justice Department and the Trump administration for supporting state and local law enforcement agencies, highlighting cases in which the federal and local authorities worked together to catch and prosecute scammers who target senior citizens.
Earlier in the day during a conference call with Iowa reporters, Grassley dismissed ethical concerns surrounding Whitaker. The Iowa senator referenced several meetings he’s had with the acting attorney general as evidence of his ability to perform well. Those include working together on the campaign trail, going on jogs around Des Moines and eating oatmeal in the senator’s Washington home.
“I have full faith in his abilities as acting attorney general,” Grassley said.
Grassley added that a formal Senate process to confirm Whitaker in his temporary job would be “stupid,” saying the Senate would need to convene anyway once a permanent nominee is selected. That announcement is expected to come from the White House within a few weeks.
The Justice Department issued a memo Wednesday saying Whitaker’s appointment was constitutionally correct, a departure from some legal experts who argue otherwise.
A legal challenge was filed this week in a Maryland federal court to examine that question.
Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.