Trump says he will not intervene if 'politically astute' Whitaker moves to limit Mueller's Russia investigation

President backs new acting attorney general in wide-ranging interview

Chris Stevenson
Sunday 18 November 2018 17:58 GMT
President Trump responds to Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker's past statement on the Mueller investigation

Donald Trump has said that he will not interfere if acting attorney general Matthew Whittaker seeks to limit special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

The president appointed Mr Whittaker earlier this month, having forced out then-attorney general Jeff Sessions after criticising Mr Sessions for months about his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the probe. The federal investigation is looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, whether there was any collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign officials and if Mr Trump has sought to unlawfully obstruct the inquiry.

Mr Whitaker has been handed supervision of the Mueller investigation from deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, but has faced controversy over previous remarks criticising the scope of the probe and the possibility of it being curtailed by slashing Mr Mueller's funding.

Democrats have called Mr Whitaker a "political lackey" and called on him to immediately recuse himself, particularly given that he had also echoed Mr Trump's constant denials of any collusion with Russia. A new filing as also asked the Supreme Court to rule that Mr Whitaker is not legally qualified to serve as acting attorney general as he has not been confirmed by the Senate.

Speaking during an interview on Fox News that is being aired on Sunday, Mr Trump said that he would not get involved if Mr Whitaker moved limit the Mueller probe.

"It's going to be up to him," Mr Trump told Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace in a wide-ranging interview. "I think he's very well aware politically. I think he's astute politically. ... He's going to do what's right."

Mr Trump said he “did not know [Mr Whitaker] took views on the Mueller investigation,” saying that those views did not have any effect on the appointment. But the president said his views on the probe were right.

“What do you do when a person’s right?” Mr Trump said. “There is no collusion. He happened to be right. I mean, he said it. So if he said there is collusion, I’m supposed to be taking somebody that says there is? Because then I wouldn’t take him for two reasons, but the number one reason is the fact that he would have been wrong. If he said that there’s no collusion, he’s right.”

Mr Mueller has bought indictments and charges against a number of former Trump campaign officials, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security advisor Michael Flynn as well as a number of Russian individuals and entities.

A number of those in Congress, including some Republicans, are worried that Mr Whitaker's appointment could lead to the investigation being hampered, or even end with Mr Mueller being fired.

A bipartisan group of Senators renewed a push last week for legislation to protect Mr Mueller. However, it was opposed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said Democrats would not stand for any effort by Mr Whitaker to curb Mr Mueller's probe.

“We will expose any involvement he has in it,” Mr Schiff said, referring to Whitaker on ABC's This Week. He accused Mr Trump of appointing Mr Whitaker in order to interfere with the investigation. ”This is an attack on the rule of law.“

In an interview with Meet the Press on Sunday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an ally of the president, said he had nothing against Mr Whitaker, adding, however: “I don’t know if he’s the best choice.”

“There are a lot of choices out there,” Mr Graham said. The senator said he would encourage the president to pick someone to nominate as attorney general very soon.

Mr Trump said he had prepared answers to questions from Mr Mueller as part of the Russia probe. "It wasn't a big deal," Mr Trump said "You know Why? I did nothing wrong."

However, Mr Trump also signalled he was not planning to sit down for a face-to-face interview with Mr Mueller or his team. The president and his lawyers had been in negotiations with Mr Mueller's team for months over how the president would be questioned as part of the investigation.

Mr Wallace asked Trump whether it was his final position that he would not do a sit-down interview and would not give written responses to questions relating to obstruction of justice.

“I think we've wasted enough time on this witch hunt and the answer is probably, we're finished,” Mr Trump said, although he added: “I can change my mind.”

Beyond the Mueller probe, Mr Trump also faced questions about possible changes in his White House team and the Republican performance in the congressional midterms earlier this month, where the party retained control of the Senate but lost its majority in the House.

Facing speculation that White House chief of staff John Kelly, and homeland secretary Kirstjen Nielsen could leave imminently, Mr Trump said that he could change multiple Cabinet members.

“I have three or four or five positions that I’m thinking about. Of that, maybe it’s going to end up being two. But I need flexibility,” Mr Trump said.

The president indicated he was disappointed with Ms Nielsen's handling of the southern border, which has been a source of tension for the two. “I like her very much, I respect her very much, I’d like her to be much together on the border. Much tougher. Period,” he said.

As for Mr Kelly, Mr Trump played down suggestions of any rift, but did not guarantee he would stay in his job until the next presidential election in 2020.

“We get along well,” Mr Trump said. “There are certain things I love what he does, and there are certain things I don’t like that he does that aren’t his strength.”

“I haven’t even thought about John in terms of this. But John at some point is going to want to move on.”

As for the recent elections, Mr Trump again said that expanding the Republican majority in the Senate was a "tremendous victory" but tried to explain away the loss of the House by saying that some supporters would only come out if he was facing a vote.

“I have people that won't vote unless I'm on the ballot, OK?” Mr Trump said. “And I wasn't on the ballot.”

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