Where are they now? Matt Whitaker edition

Matt Whitaker will become a managing director for the Kansas City-based Clout Public Affairs consulting firm, Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News was first to report on August 1. Whitaker served as chief of staff for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a little more than a year before President Donald Trump named him acting attorney general in November 2018, flouting a federal law and a constitutional requirement that anyone holding that position be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Whitaker stepped down as acting attorney general in February, after the Senate confirmed William Barr. He was “counselor in the associate attorney general’s office” for just a few weeks before leaving the Justice Department in early March. Jacobs tweeted on August 1, “There was speculation Trump would appoint Whitaker to another admin job, but the president so far hasn’t made any moves to do so, I’m told.”

A news release quoted by Kaitlyn Schallhorn in the Missouri Times said Whitaker “will help with business development, client public affairs, and strategy.” He “won’t be a registered lobbyist,” Jacobs reported, citing Clout Public Affairs president David Polyansky.

Polyansky is best-known as former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, on whose presidential campaign he worked. Clout Public Affairs is a division of Axiom Strategies, established by Cruz’s former campaign manager. Polyansky also served as a senior strategist for Joni Ernst before and during her 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate. Whitaker ran for Senate that year too, finishing fourth out of five candidates in the GOP primary. He stayed neutral before the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses.

Whitaker recently joined the Graves Garrett law firm in Kansas City.

“Our firm has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Matt both in private practice and in his official capacity with the Department of Justice,” partner Todd Graves said. “We are pleased to have him join us as we advise clients on a range of matters that will benefit from his experience working at the highest levels of leadership within the federal government, as well as his former experience in private practice and in-house counsel roles.”

The firm’s website lists Whitaker as “of counsel.” That term used to refer primarily to retired partners but now can apply to attorneys fulfilling other roles, like someone who doesn’t work at a firm full time and is not a partner. From Whitaker’s page on the Graves Garrett site:

Matthew G. Whitaker advises clients on a range of legal issues by leveraging his past experience at the highest levels of leadership within the Department of Justice, including service as acting Attorney General of the United States, serving as in-house counsel to a Fortune 100 company and representing clients in private practice through a range of complex criminal and civil litigation matters. […]

Whitaker had previously served as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 to 2009, where he obtained invaluable insight and experience regarding the enforcement of federal crimes, including mail and wire fraud, public corruption, child pornography, firearms violations, drug trafficking, corporate fraud, and terrorism financing. In addition, Whitaker was responsible for defending civil lawsuits brought against the United States, handling federal forfeiture actions, and collecting debts and restitution. […]

Following graduation from the University of Iowa in 1995, Whitaker moved to the Twin Cities, where he worked in private practice. In 1998, he joined a Fortune 100 company as corporate counsel. In 2001, Whitaker and his family moved back to Iowa, where he rejoined private practice until his appointment as United States Attorney. In 2002, Whitaker ran for State Treasurer of Iowa.

In 2009, Whitaker formed the law firm of Whitaker Hagenow & Gustoff LLP in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, which had a strategic working relationship with Graves Garrett. During that time, he represented businesses and individuals in complex criminal and civil matters.

Whitaker’s old law firm is now called Hagenow & Gustoff. Bill Gustoff still serves as treasurer for Whitaker’s defunct Senate campaign. That committee has reported no contributions or disbursements since the first quarter of 2018, when the campaign paid $500 in rent to the Des Moines law firm and accepted four-figure contributions from four Iowa Republican bigwigs within a three-day period.

To my knowledge, neither Whitaker nor Gustoff has explained why the campaign was accepting donations when Whitaker hadn’t been a candidate for years. Kenneth Vogel and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times were first to report on those mysterious contributions, noting in their November 2018 article, “Executive branch officials are generally prohibited by a federal law, the Hatch Act, from knowingly soliciting or accepting campaign donations.” Whitaker was Sessions’ chief of staff in early 2018.

I’m also not aware of any justification for Whitaker’s improper decision to fly with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on the president’s helicopter Marine One in December 2018. At that time, the acting attorney general was overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which potentially implicated both Trump and Kushner.

Iowans who want to catch up with Whitaker this week won’t need to travel to Kansas City. He’s headlining the Dallas County Republicans’ “Party like a Patriot” fundraiser in Des Moines on August 8.

UPDATE: Robbie Gramer and Jefcoate O’Donnell reported for Foreign Policy on August 6,

Whitaker, who is joining Clout Public Affairs as managing director, will not be working directly on the contract with the government of Cameroon and will not be filing as a lobbyist, a Clout Public Affairs spokesperson told Foreign Policy. But human rights activists say Whitaker’s hiring will bring outsized influence to a firm looking to burnish Cameroon’s image in Washington as its government faces accusations of widespread human rights abuses against civilians. […]

Clout Public Affairs, a firm organized by former aides to Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, last month signed on to lobby for Cameroon for $55,000 a month in four-month increments until the contract is canceled, according to public disclosure filings with the U.S. Justice Department. The firm, according to the contract, will provide public relations services to help cultivate a “favorable image” for Cameroon’s government, to include “placing targeted op eds in conservative-oriented outlets in order to foster a robust and growing partnership narrative into the future.”

The Clout spokesperson said it is an important time to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cameroonian governments as the country faces growing instability and threats from terrorism. The lobbying contract does not mention work beyond PR and communications. But it has drawn sharp criticism from human rights activists. […]

“Over the past several years, there has been a hugely significant increase in the number of U.S. lobbyists representing foreign nationals, many of them connected to the Trump administration,” said Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, which supports democracy movements in the region. “Many of Trump’s fundraisers and supporters have struck it rich in this sector, often working on behalf of the world’s worst human rights abusers,” said Smith, who has done work on behalf of Cameroonian opposition figures.

SECOND UPDATE: CNN’s Kevin Collier reported on August 12 that Whitaker will serve as outside general counsel for “PC Matic, the…not-top tier antivirus company, per release this morning. Extremely on-brand for all parties involved, including the White House official to tech company pipeline.” The news release noted that during Whitaker’s time at the Department of Justice, “I saw firsthand the damage cybercriminals have inflicted on Americans across the country, and I’m excited to join the team at PC Matic as we redefine the standards of cybersecurity technologies.”

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