When I wrote here last Wednesday that Donald Trump, confronted with a Democratic House, would “behave like a cornered rat,” I didn’t imagine that he would so speedily confirm my prediction. By mid-afternoon, he had ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installed — as overseer of Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation — a toady who has publicly parroted Trump’s “witch hunt” mantra.
How bad is Matthew Whitaker? So bad that conservative commentator Bret Stephens describes him this way: “Unqualified … Shady … A crackpot … Dangerous.” Whitaker’s sudden appointment, which skirts the Senate confirmation process, is, in Stephens’ words, “an unprecedented assault on the integrity and reputation of the Justice Department, the advice and consent function of the Senate, and the rule of law in the United States.” Indeed, “Whitaker’s public record of aggressive hostility to the Mueller probe disqualifies him from overseeing it.”
And speaking of skirting the confirmation process, here’s conservative attorney George Conway (husband of Kellyanne; the pillow talk must be fascinating): “Mr. Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.”
We’ll leave it to the lawyers to sort out Whitaker’s job status. The big question is whether, or to what extent, Trump’s craven chess move will damage Mueller’s far-flung global probe into Trump’s shady doings and his ties, financial or otherwise, to the Kremlin power structure that helped elect him.
Trump has long yearned to have a lock-step loyalist as attorney general, someone who can politicize the Justice Department in order to punish his foes and protect him from criminal exposure. Whitaker fills the bill. But is he too late to slam the brakes on an investigation that has already racked up indictments and guilty pleas from 32 people, including … let’s see now … four ex-Trump advisers (all of whom have pleaded guilty), 26 Russian nationals, a California man, a London-based lawyer, and three Russian companies?
A worst-case scenario: Senate Republicans predictably cave to Trump’s slow-motion Justice Department coup, predictably abetting a constitutional crisis; Whitaker stays in the post and blocks subpoenas that Mueller serves on Trump and his family; he tries to cut Mueller’s budget, hustle him to the finish line, and suppress his final report.
But here’s an upbeat scenario: Mueller survives, with the integrity of his probe basically intact. You read that right. There are actually shafts of sunlight piercing the usual gloom.
It’s very difficult to stifle a federal probe that has amassed key evidence over a period of two years (the FBI began to investigate Trump-Russia long before Mueller was appointed). Indeed, it’s very difficult to thwart the FBI, as most presidents have long discovered. Mueller has also outsourced a lot of important aspects of the probe to other federal jurisdictions; ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the confessed felon, is being handled in New York. The federal case of pro-Trump election operative Elena Khusyaynova, who has close Kremlin ties, is being handled in the Eastern District of Virginia. There are simply too many fires for Whitaker to stomp out. Or, as legal analyst Benjamin Wittes puts it, “If Trump imagines these investigations as a cancer on his presidency, they are a cancer that has already metastasized.”
And one other thing: Starting in January, Democrats will control the House. They will restore to the dictionary a word that Trump’s servile Republicans had managed to expunge. It’s called “oversight.” They will have subpoena power. If Whitaker tries to impede Mueller or suppress Mueller’s final report, he can be subpoenaed to answer questions about whether his moves are an obstruction of justice. Mueller himself, following the completion of his report, could be afforded an opportunity to testify about any interference.
At last check, 56,099,786 Americans voted for congressional accountability — that’s the latest nationwide tally for Democratic House candidates, the highest House vote total in history — and they’ve flipped roughly 37 seats from red to blue. Beginning in January, they will get what they voted for. Grassroots Democrats who still somehow believe that the midterm results were “meh” would do well to remind themselves that the House Intelligence Committee chairman will no longer be Trump lapdog Devin Nunes. The new chairman will be Adam Schiff.
Schiff is well aware that Whitaker has reportedly “met with the president in the Oval Office more than a dozen times” and that Trump has reportedly told associates “that he felt Whitaker would be ‘loyal’ and would not have recused himself from the Russia probe.” (So much for Trump’s Friday lie: “I don’t know Matt Whitaker.”) Schiff is therefore on high alert. Here’s what he said yesterday, on “Meet the Press”:
“If Whitaker doesn’t recuse himself and has any involvement in Mueller’s probe, we will expose it, including whether he made any commitments to Trump, is serving as a back channel, or interfering in the probe. He will be held accountable. There must be no ambiguity about that.”
Trump has frequently mocked Schiff, calling him “Little Adam.” We’ll see whether that nickname sticks in 2019, when the Democratic pushback — on Mueller’s behalf — will surely be sizeable.