WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has concluded that Matt Whitaker, appointed by President Donald Trump as the acting attorney general, had no legal reason to recuse and is overseeing Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, according to a person familiar with the decision on Thursday.
However, an agency ethics adviser told Whitaker it was a “close call” and recommended that he step aside — a recommendation Whitaker declined to follow, according to a senior Justice Department official.
Formal notice of his role was expected to come in a letter to congressional Democrats who had said his critical comments about the Mueller investigation, made when he was a conservative commentator, require him to recuse — that is, to take himself out of any supervision of the case.
The acting attorney general has not been fully briefed on Mueller’s investigation but has been apprised of major developments per protocol. Rosenstein continues to play the leading role in overseeing the investigation, but Whitaker has the ultimate authority to approve or challenge new investigative steps.
At a news conference Thursday in which the Justice Department announced charges against two Chinese hackers, Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said that Mueller’s investigation is “being handled appropriately.”
“In terms of my role, as we’ve described previously, we’ve continued to manage the investigation as we have in the past — and it’s being handled appropriately,” Rosenstein said. “Whether it’s Bob Mueller or Rod Rosenstein or Matt Whitaker or Bill Barr, that investigation’s going to be handled appropriately by the Department of Justice.”
He also addressed the “unsolicited memo” sent to the Justice Department earlier this year by Bill Barr, who Trump announced earlier this month was his pick to succeed Sessions.
The memo, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, criticized part of Mueller’s Russia investigation as “fatally misconceived.”
Rosenstein praised Barr, who previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, but said the memo “had no impact on our investigation” and that “our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn’t have.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Barr’s memo “very troubling.” She pointed out that the document was proactively drafted just six months ago, and questioned why it was shared with Rosenstein and Trump’s lawyers.
“The drafting of this memo was not undertaken lightly. The memo presents a thoroughly crafted legal argument against investigating the president, with pointed conclusions that the president is above the law. The president is not above the law,” Feinstein said in a statement on Thursday.
“There’s no reason for a lawyer in private practice to do this unless he was attempting to curry favor with President Trump and convey that he would protect the president,” she added.
She added, “The Justice Department has been under relentless attack by this president and it needs a leader who is independent and able to defend the rule of law. The Attorney General is charged with protecting the people, not the president.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation Thursday afternoon, sending President Donald Trump a letter that implicitly criticized the president’s military judgment.
In the letter, Mattis suggested Trump was not treating allies with respect and had not been “clear-eyed” about U.S. enemies and competitors.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” he wrote.
Mattis told the president in the letter that he should have a defense chief who shares his views.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he wrote.
Many traditional U.S. allies have been frustrated by Trump’s open differences with them, and Mattis appeared to take the president to task for that in the letter.
“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” the general wrote.
“While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” the letter said.
The president on Twitter portrayed the departure as a retirement.
“General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years,” Trump wrote.
“During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made,” the president tweeted. “General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations. A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!”
The administration is now working with an acting attorney general while the interior secretary has recently resigned.
Congress passed a waiver to allow Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense; a law bars newly retired military officers from heading up the Department of Defense.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, referenced that move, which he called “an extraordinary action,” in praising Mattis. Thornberry said the only other time that had been done was when Gen. George C. Marshall was chosen as Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration.
“Speaking in support of the legislation on the House Floor I said, ‘I know of no one more respected, more admired in the field of national security today than General Mattis,'” Thornberry said in a statement Thursday. “His service as Secretary over the last two years has only added to the luster of his name.”
WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee announced on Thursday that it will sanction 12 debates for the 2020 presidential primaries, with the first ones taking place next June and July, the committee’s chairman, Tom Perez, said on a conference call with reporters.
Six of the debates will take place in 2019, Perez said, and six in 2020, with the final one in April. Perez said that none of the states with the first nominating contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — would host a debate until 2020.
Given the potential size of the Democratic field, Perez said the DNC would split the debates into separate events on back-to-back nights, with participation on a particular evening determined by a random selection open to the public.
That’s in contrast to the early Republican presidential debates in 2016, when the GOP held an undercard debate on the same day before the primetime debate featuring the major candidates.
“We expect that large field, and we welcome that large field,” Perez said. “Drawing lots strikes me as the fairest way to make sure everyone gets a fair shake.”
Criteria for presidential candidates to qualify for the debates, Perez added, would be based on polling and grassroots fundraising, though he declined to offer specific thresholds; those will likely be announced at later dates.
“This is the first step in an ongoing debate process,” he said.
Perez also said the DNC would not bar candidates from participating in forums, but he said it would discourage them from appearing in debates beyond the 12 the DNC is sanctioning.
In the 2016 presidential cycle, the DNC came under fire from activists for sanctioning just six presidential debates — though more eventually took place — and for limiting some of the events to weekend nights.