WASHINGTON (AP) – President Donald Trump distanced himself Friday from his new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, whose past business ties and comments on the Russia investigation and other topics have drawn scrutiny.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Trump said: “I don’t know Matt Whitaker. Matt Whitaker worked for Jeff Sessions, and he was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn’t know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions.”
That contradicted remarks Trump made on Fox News last month, when he called Whitaker “a great guy” and said “I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.
Trump elevated Whitaker to the post on Wednesday after forcing out Sessions, installing a Republican Party loyalist to oversee the special counsel investigation into possible ties between Russia and the president’s 2016 campaign.
Since then, Whitaker, who had been Sessions’ chief of staff, has faced pressure from Democrats to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller, based on critical comments he made about the investigation before joining the Justice Department last year.
Those include an op-ed in which he said Mueller would be straying outside his mandate if he investigated Trump family finances and a talk radio interview in which he maintained that there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. There have also been reports about past comments questioning the power and reach of the federal judiciary, and about his ties to an invention-promotion company that was accused of misleading investors.
Legal scholars, meanwhile, have debated the constitutionality of Whitaker’s appointment, with some lawyers saying it is illegal because Whitaker has not been confirmed by the Senate.
Despite Trump’s distancing himself from Whitaker, two Republicans close to the president said he had enjoyed Whitaker’s TV appearances and the two had struck a bond. Those TV appearances included one on CNN in which Whitaker suggested that the Mueller probe could be starved of resources.
Trump told associates that he felt that Whitaker would be “loyal” and would not have recused himself from the Russia probe as Sessions had done, according to the Republicans, who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
In his comments Friday, he said he had not spoken with Whitaker about Mueller’s investigation, which until now has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Of the scrutiny Whitaker is facing, Trump said: “It’s a shame that no matter who I put in they go after.”
“He was very, very highly thought of, and still is highly thought of, but this only comes up because anybody that works for me, they do a number on them,” Trump said.
In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he expects Trump to nominate a new permanent attorney general “pretty quickly.” McConnell said he expects Whitaker to be “a very interim” attorney general.
Trump has not said whom he will nominate to replace Sessions. That candidate, unlike Whitaker, would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is said to be a candidate, along with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among others.
Trump told reporters he has not discussed the post with Christie, who he said was “a friend of mine” and “a good man.”