President Donald Trump defended acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker as a “highly respected man” on Friday, while also claiming he didn’t know him despite reports Whitaker had regularly visited the Oval Office in recent months.
“I don’t know Whitaker,” the president told reporters, but added that he is “highly thought of” and a “highly respected man.”
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The New York Times reported in September that Whitaker, then the chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had “frequently visited the Oval Office” and that Trump had called him to offer “reassurance that he has faith in him.” The Washington Post also cited a senior administration official who said Whitaker met with Trump in the Oval Office more than a dozen times, usually alongside Sessions.
Trump has also previously said that he does actually know Whitaker.
“I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy,” he said on an interview on “Fox and Friends” on Oct. 11. “I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”
Trump’s comments appearing to distance himself from Whitaker came as the new DOJ head has quickly drawn criticism over past comments he made on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which he said went too far.
Whitaker, who is now overseeing the Mueller probe, definitively said last year that there was “no evidence of collusion” between Russia and the Trump campaign, and also warned that the probe could be turning into a “witch hunt.”
On Friday, Trump said he didn’t speak to Whitaker about the Mueller investigation before naming him acting attorney general. “I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker about it,” Trump told reporters.
Still, some lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s probe, as Sessions did. Sessions’ recusal frequently drew Trump’s ire and reportedly played a major factor in his downfall.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on Friday took a different tack, arguing that Whitaker’s appointment was “possibly unconstitutional.”
“Making the chief law enforcement officer not confirmed by the Senate is of questionable constitutionality,” Coons told POLITICO.
Coons said Democrats could challenge Whitaker’s appointment by arguing the deputy attorney general should have the role, but he said he hoped the “president was not planning on having Matthew Whitaker in charge for long.”
A senior White House official tried to explain the discrepancy in Trump’s statements about his familiarity with Whitaker, telling POLITICO that Whitaker had been in meetings with Trump in the past, but was not the person running the meeting.
“Matt’s been in a lot of meetings with the president, but the president obviously spends more time with the principals and usually it’s the principals who are directing these meetings,” the official said. “But what [Trump] knows of him is that he’s very respected and highly qualified.”
The official also denied a CNN report that described several senior officials as blindsided by some of Whitaker’s comments that have resurfaced.
“He was thoroughly vetted and has a very good rapport with the White House,” the official said.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, told POLITICO on Thursday he wasn’t aware of any meetings between just Trump and Whitaker while he was the attorney general’s chief of staff.
But Giuliani added that Trump’s personal lawyers would have only needed to be clued in to a Trump meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who until this week was overseeing the Mueller probe.
Giuliani also said the president didn’t consult with him about ousting Sessions — a move that the former New York mayor also said wasn’t a surprise to him.
“I mean it’s pretty obvious in the last couple of months he was closer to Rosenstein than Jeff, more comfortable with him,” Giuliani said.
Whitaker, who was also previously a U.S. attorney in Iowa, was named acting attorney general on Wednesday after the president asked Sessions to resign.
Trump on Friday defended his choice to make Whitaker the interim department chief, saying the appointment was justified because Whitaker had been confirmed by the Senate when he served as a U.S. attorney from 2004 to 2009.
“Mueller was not Senate confirmed,” the president said of his appointment as special counsel.
“Why didn’t they get him Senate confirmed?” he said of the special counsel.
Mueller, however, was confirmed by the Senate when he became FBI director in 2001. Whitaker did not have to be confirmed by the Senate to be Sessions’ chief of staff.
Gabby Orr, Darren Samuelsohn and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.