The Justice Department has concluded that Matt Whitaker, appointed by President Donald Trump as the acting attorney general, had no reason to recuse and is overseeing Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, according to a person familiar with the decision on Thursday.
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.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure in November, recused himself from oversight of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election because he was an active campaigner for then-presidential candidate Trump.
After Sessions’ ouster, Trump appointed Whitaker as acting attorney general. Almost immediately, Whitaker came under fire for previous comments against Mueller’s investigation.
In a letter to the Justice Department’s top ethics officer in November, seven Democratic leaders said, “Mr. Whitaker’s statements indicate a clear bias against the investigation that would cause a reasonable person to question his impartiality.”
The letter was signed by the House and Senate Democratic leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, along with the ranking Democrats on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees of the two chambers and by Elijah Cummings, ranking Democrat on the House government oversight committee.
Justice Department officials say Whitaker has been overseeing the Mueller investigation since shortly after he was appointed acting attorney general.
At a news conference Thursday in which the Justice Department announced charges against two Chinese hackers, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein 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.”
Pete Williams reported from Washington, and Dartunorro Clark reported from New York.