Although Senator Chuck Grassley is in no hurry to announce his future plans, former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker continues to lay the groundwork for a possible U.S. Senate bid in 2022.
He speaks at GOP gatherings around Iowa, most recently the Johnson County Republican fundraiser on May 5. And perhaps more important for his future prospects, Whitaker helped create the America First Legal organization, which will regularly engage the Biden administration in fights sure to please the Republican base.
Whitaker is a founding board member of America First Legal, along with others who worked closely with President Donald Trump, such as former senior White House adviser Stephen Miller and former chief of staff Mark Meadows. Gabby Orr reported for Politico in March that the group “will help organize Republican attorneys general against perceived executive branch abuses in addition to filing lawsuits of its own.”
Two people familiar with the group said they envision it becoming a conservative version of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed 400 legal challenges against the Trump administration during the former president’s four years in office.
As the 501(c)(3) organization launched in early April, Whitaker tweeted, “I am looking forward to the continued fight to defend our Constitution and fundamental rights which are under attack by an unholy alliance of special interests, big tech, fake news, and liberal politicians.”
During its first month of operations, America First Legal sued the Biden administration twice: over border policy (“acting as outside counsel” for the Texas attorney general) and over provisions in the American Rescue Plan that benefit “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers.
Since the 1990 Farm Bill, federal law has defined “socially disadvantaged” to include certain racial and ethnic groups who long experienced systemic discrimination in agricultural programs. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected the same groups, which is why the American Rescue Plan covered additional debt relief to farmers or ranchers who are Black, American Indian or Alaskan native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian American or Pacific Islander. (While the bill was in committee, Iowa’s new U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra sought unsuccessfully to lower planned payments to farmers of color.)
America First Legal portrays the policy as illegal racial discrimination against white farmers and ranchers. In tweet highligting that lawsuit, Whitaker noted that he and Miller and Meadows “recently started America First Legal and we are already one of the leading conservative legal organizations.” His take on the border lawsuit bragged, “I’m proud of the work of America First Legal. We just filed in court to require the Biden Administration to obey the law and protect Americans from COVID-19 coming across the now-open Southern Border.”
America First Legal also filed a brief in the Texas Supreme Court “seeking to remedy the City of San Antonio’s decision to refuse government contracts to Chick-fil-A based on the city’s perception of Chick-fil-A’s religious views and company donations to organizations that support a traditional understanding of marriage.” Whitaker tweeted, “Chick-fil-A will not be cancelled on our watch.”
Not only will those positions be popular with rank-and-file Republicans, Whitaker’s involvement in the legal organization likely increases the odds of a Trump endorsement in an IA-Sen primary.
Whitaker previously demonstrated his loyalty to the president on many occasions. He met improperly with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner at a crucial point in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He used his position as acting attorney general to “shut down” an investigation of “a state-owned Turkish bank suspected of violating U.S. sanctions law by funneling billions of dollars of gold and cash to Iran,” the New York Times reported last October.
In numerous media appearances to promote his 2020 book (which one critic described as a “fawning defense” of Trump), Whitaker advanced the conspiracy theory that a “Deep State” including Mueller was working to undermine the president.
Whitaker’s speeches to Republican audiences have long centered around praise for Trump, as opposed to touting his own accomplishments working in the administration. From Zachary Oren Smith’s coverage of Whitaker’s appearance at a Johnson County Republican event in 2019:
“We are still the shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan described, but we still hold this vessel that contains what we’ve been given and it’s very fragile,” Whitaker said. […]
“I mentioned that this president has caused real wages to go up. Like people have more money in their pocket now than they would have a year, two, three years ago,” Whitaker said. […]
Under previous presidents, Whitaker said, “You didn’t feel good about the country. They didn’t encourage you to be patriotic, to love your country, to cheer for your country. They always seemed to make us feel bad. They want to go around the country to apologize for who the United States is and what we stand for.
This president doesn’t, this president puts America first. ‘America First,’ it means all these policies, but if he isn’t reelected, these policies are going to go away and evaporate. And we’re going to return to the days of being made feel bad that we’re a special country.”
This past week, Whitaker told the Republican crowd in Coralville, “This is the first time in American history where two political parties disagree with what the goal is for our country. The Democrats don’t want American greatness […] They don’t want individual liberty, individual freedom, individual success. It is about the collective.”
Whitaker performed poorly in the 2014 GOP primary for U.S. Senate, finishing a distant fourth in a field of five candidates. But he would become the instant front-runner for the 2022 nomination if the Senate seat is open.
I wouldn’t bet on a Grassley retirement, though. During a May 7 appearance on the Iowa PBS program “Iowa Press,” the senator emphasized that he enjoys serving Iowans, has lots of energy, almost never misses a floor vote, and regularly meets people encouraging him to run again. Grassley has said he will make his intentions known sometime this fall.
P.S.–Bleeding Heartland reported in August 2019 on three new gigs for Whitaker: managing director for the Kansas City-based Clout Public Affairs consulting firm, “of counsel” for the Graves Garrett law firm in Kansas City, and “outside general counsel” for the anti-virus company PC Matic. Pages about Whitaker no longer appear on the websites for Clout Public Affairs or Graves Garrett, and I couldn’t find any reference to him doing recent work for PC Matic.