As criminal probes advanced, Whitaker met with Trump, Kushner

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker met with President Donald Trump and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on the morning of December 7, hours before federal prosecutors released three briefs recounting crimes and misconduct by Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and personal attorney Michael Cohen.

Cameron Joseph of Talking Points Memo saw Kushner and Whitaker boarding Marine One, the helicopter carrying the president, around 9:00 am. The meeting was improper because Whitaker will continue to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller for at least another month.

Kushner and Trump are both potentially implicated in crimes Mueller is investigating, related to a possible conspiracy between Russian entities seeking to influence the 2016 election and individuals tied to Trump’s campaign. Although Mueller heavily redacted sentencing memos released this week regarding Cohen and Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, legal commentators agree signs point to serious jeopardy for the president and his closest associates.

In addition, U.S. attorneys in New York contend that Cohen committed campaign finance felonies “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1” (a reference to the president).

Former federal prosecutor and University of Alabama law professor Joyce Vance commented wryly,

Indeed, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley has sharply criticized President Barack Obama’s Attorney General Lynch on numerous occasions for speaking with Clinton (for example, here and here). Grassley also argued that Lynch should recuse herself from any investigation related to Hillary Clinton because of that ill-advised conversation with Bill Clinton.

At this writing, neither Grassley nor any other prominent Republican has criticized Whitaker’s latest meeting with Kushner and Trump or demanded that Whitaker recuse himself from contact with Mueller’s investigation.

Whitaker’s stint as acting attorney general–a position to which he was unlawfully appointed–will likely end sometime next month. Trump confirmed on December 7 that his choice for attorney general is William Barr, who served in that role under President George H.W. Bush and is known for his expansive view of executive power.

The U.S. Senate won’t act on Barr’s nomination until the new Congress convenes in January, Grassley said in a written statement. (By that time, Iowa’s senior senator will have moved into a leadership role on the Finance Committee.) Waiting will allow Barr’s confirmation to proceed more smoothly. The new Senate will have 53 Republicans (up from 51 now), and the Judiciary Committee will be free of retiring GOP Senator Jeff Flake, who has held up a number of nominations since the November election.

In a speech on December 7, Whitaker praised Barr as an “excellent choice” to lead the Justice Department. Senator Joni Ernst told Iowa reporters the same day, “I am not sure where [Whitaker] is going to land […] But I am sure he would take it as it comes and I am sure he will land on his feet.”

No doubt that Marine One huddle with Trump and Kushner will help Whitaker secure another plum job–perhaps replacing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, if the Senate confirms Barr. Rosenstein has not exercised his authority to fire the special counsel. On the contrary, he has defended and protected Mueller’s role, despite Trump’s many complaints about a “witch hunt.” But Barr–like Whitaker–has publicly criticized the Mueller investigation and hyped alleged misconduct by Hillary Clinton.

UPDATE: Vance appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on December 10. Host Joe Scarborough commented that Whitaker’s action was “even worse” than Bill Clinton’s meeting with Loretta Lynch, which led to much of the media “freaking out.” Vance replied,

Yeah, it’s actually entirely different situations. Lynch’s, I think, just random meeting with President Clinton on the tarmac came near the end of that investigation. Whereas Kushner, who’s clearly in the lens right now, with no decisions made, invited the acting attorney general to join him on Marine One. There should be outrage and uproar and a call for the acting attorney general to recuse from further participation in the investigation.

Still haven’t seen Grassley or any other senior Republican condemn this meeting.

Meanwhile, Whitaker is reportedly a possible candidate to replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff, now that Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers has taken himself out of the running. Katie Rogers, Maggie Haberman, and Annie Karni reported for the New York Times on December 10 that “nearly every West Wing staff member” has said Whitaker “could not be a realistic option” for chief of staff, but Trump likes him personally.

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