Staff Editorial

Protect Mueller, make Whitaker's tenure brief

Demonstrators, calling for the recusal of acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, hold a
Demonstrators, calling for the recusal of acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, hold a "You Can't Fire The Truth" sign outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

It usually makes us proud when a fellow Iowan is elevated to an important role in government. However, the recent appointment of acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker is cause for caution, not celebration.

Whitaker has a long and varied resume in law and politics. In addition to his work at law firms and corporate offices, he has run twice for statewide office in Iowa and served as a U.S. attorney under former President George W. Bush. Most recently, he was ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.

While Whitaker may loosely be qualified to stand in as head of the Justice Department, the context of Sessions’ departure, along with Whitaker’s public statements in the preceding months, sparks grave concerns.

President Donald Trump had long criticized Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian election interference, and Sessions resigned at Trump’s request.

Trump’s quick decision to appoint Whitaker, who has openly criticized special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, is glaringly consistent with the idea Trump wants to interfere with the Russia inquiry. Whitaker made several media appearances last year in which he criticized the scope of the Mueller investigation and explained how it might be curtailed.

“I can see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said during an interview on CNN in July 2017.

Was that speculation, or a premonition? Perhaps Whitaker is a better fortuneteller than a politician.

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Government lawyers and ethics officers will work out the outstanding questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment and his oversight of the Russia investigation are legal. What we already know, though, is that any move by the administration to hinder the Mueller investigation would be an enormous breach of public trust.

U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa have made statements in support of Whitaker’s promotion, but they also have said the president must not infringe on the independent investigatory process. It’s imperative for Iowans to hold our senators accountable to that. If Trump or Whitaker overstep his bounds, there must be dire consequences.

Whitaker’s tenure as acting attorney general should be brief and inconsequential. Anything more will rightly be seen as an affront to the rule of law.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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