President Donald Trump said Friday that he didn’t know Matt Whitaker — the man he tapped to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general on an acting basis — and claimed he hadn’t discussed special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe with him.
“I didn’t speak to Matt Whitaker” about the federal probe into Russian election interference, Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn on Friday.
“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Trump added. “He was always extremely highly thought of and still is.”
Whitaker, who had served as Sessions’s chief of staff since late 2017, was tapped by Trump on Wednesday to become acting attorney general after Sessions resigned at the president’s request.
He therefore took over the role of overseeing Mueller’s work from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and will be, at least temporarily, in a position to have a significant impact on the scope of the probe.
Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the probe because of his involvement with Trump’s presidential campaign.
In an interview that aired less than one month ago, Trump said he did “know Whitaker.”
“I can tell you Matt Whitaker is a great guy, I know Matt Whitaker,” he told “Fox and Friends” during an Oct. 11 telephone interview.
Meanwhile, on Friday, when he was asked if Whitaker should recuse himself from involvement with the Mueller probe, as Sessions did, Trump responded, “I see all these folks on television making comments, they don’t recuse.”
“If everyone on television making comments recuse, you’d have no one left. Making comments on shows, doesn’t mean you’re unqualified,” Trump said.
When asked if he wanted Whitaker to “rein in Mueller,” Trump replied, “What a stupid question.”
Whitaker has a tangled history with the Mueller probe.
In the summer of 2017, when he was a conservative legal commentator on CNN, he repeatedly expressed reservations about the Russia investigation, at one point musing about how a clever attorney general could secretly starve it of funds.
Two years before, Whitaker, a former Iowa federal prosecutor, was the campaign chairman for an Iowa politician who later became an important witness in Mueller’s probe.
And inside the Justice Department, Whitaker was viewed as an agent of the White House, one administration official and one former U.S. attorney told NBC News.
Whitaker’s verified Twitter account has been locked, preventing non-followers from seeing his timeline and his past tweets.