WASHINGTON—Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is unlikely to recuse himself from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, associates said, though it remains unclear how much of an impact he may have on that probe and other ones stemming from it.
Mr. Whitaker publicly criticized the Mueller probe before arriving at the Justice Department last year as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff. That prompted Democrats on Thursday to call for his recusal from oversight of the 18-month-old investigation, which he assumed a day earlier when he was named acting attorney general after the White House ousted Mr. Sessions.
The White House declined to say Thursday whether, before naming Mr. Whitaker to the temporary post, it had determined he wouldn’t recuse himself, referring questions to the Justice Department.
Mr. Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation, because of his own prominent role in the Trump campaign, was a source of friction with the president. One White House official described it as Mr. Sessions’ “original sin,” from which he never recovered. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say whether Mr. Whitaker had consulted with the agency’s ethics office on the issue.
As acting attorney general, Mr. Whitaker assumes control of Mr. Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any links to the Trump campaign, and can request briefings on any investigative or prosecutorial steps. Mr. Whitaker can also conclude any such action is “so inappropriate or unwarranted” that it shouldn’t be pursued, but would be required to give “great weight” to Mr. Mueller’s views and notify Congress about his decision, according to regulations governing Mr. Mueller’s appointment.
Many lawmakers, including leading Republicans, have called for the investigation to be allowed to proceed without interference. Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Thursday: “I don’t think Mr. Mueller ought to be fired. I do think Mr. Mueller needs to wrap it up, though. He’s been working on this for a long time and it’s time to bring it to a conclusion.”
Until now, the investigation has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Mr. Rosenstein has been viewed within the department as a protector of the probe from the president’s criticisms and from some Republicans in Congress who have attacked it as politically biased. He also approved the generation of new cases by other U.S. Attorney’s offices on matters that stemmed, at least in part, from the Mueller probe, such as the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s investigation into Mr. Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. Mr. Cohen in August pleaded guilty to charges including two campaign-finance violations and implicated the president in a federal crime. The president denied any wrongdoing.
It isn’t clear how much influence, either formal or informal, that Mr. Rosenstein will continue to have regarding the probe.
Mr. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney in Iowa during the George W. Bush administration, occasionally clashed with Mr. Rosenstein since the two men began working together at Justice, according to a person familiar with their relationship. Mr. Rosenstein once pointedly gave Mr. Whitaker a book on effective management, the person said. Another official played down the extent of the tension, saying such disagreements are common in any administration and Mr. Rosenstein had given management books to other staffers as well.
Mr. Whitaker’s ability to influence the course of the special-counsel investigation may depend in part on how close Mr. Mueller is to wrapping up his probe. Mr. Mueller hasn’t publicly commented on the status of his inquiry, but outward signs suggest he may be close to wrapping up much of it. The Special Counsel’s team is in negotiations with Mr. Trump’s lawyers over how the president will answer questions from the investigation.
In a Thursday letter to Mr. Whitaker, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee called on Mr. Rosenstein to continue oversight of the probe, noting Mr. Whitaker’s previous statements on the investigation. They also instructed the Justice Department to preserve “all materials” related to the special counsel investigation and Mr. Sessions’ departure. After Tuesday’s midterm election, Democrats will control the House in January; Republicans are expected to have an expanded majority in the Senate.
Among other comments, Mr. Whitaker before joining the Justice Department had urged that the inquiry’s scope be limited, saying that otherwise it could start to look like a “political fishing expedition.”
In appointing Mr. Mueller, Mr. Rosenstein authorized him to investigate coordination between Trump campaign associates and Russia as well as matters that “may arise directly” from that investigation. Mr. Whitaker and other Mueller critics say the special counsel’s pursuit of matters such as the Trump Organization’s finances exceed that mandate, while his supporters disagree.
Sen. Kennedy said: “I don’t know Mr. Whitaker. I do think it’s a little disingenuous of my Democratic colleagues to start to hammer on him even before he has a chance to find the Men’s Room.”
Federal ethics regulations governing the Justice Department are more generally focused on financial or legal conflicts of interest, rather than past commentary. Justice Department ethics lawyers offer advice, but not strict orders, about whether an official should recuse, though other officials have typically followed their guidance.
Mr. Whitaker has sometimes had a difficult relationship with other department officials, people familiar with the department’s leadership said. He was tapped to replace Jody Hunt, Mr. Sessions’ former chief of staff, who was a longtime Justice Department employee with a more relaxed management style than Mr. Whitaker’s more aggressive approach, people who know both men said.
He had no relationship with Mr. Sessions or the rest of the department brass before arriving. He was installed at the suggestion of Leonard Leo, head of the influential Federalist Society, upon whom Mr. Trump relies when it comes to picking judges, who admired his style and connections to the conservative legal world, people familiar with the matter said. He has allies in the White House. When Mr. Rosenstein’s departure seemed imminent last month, White House and Justice Department officials crafted a plan to have Mr. Whitaker replace him, people familiar with it said.
Outward signs of the leadership shift were already evident Thursday. Mr. Whitaker attended a formal investiture for new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in Mr. Sessions’ stead, reciting the lines from the lectern before the sitting justices. When a court clerk read aloud Justice Kavanaugh’s commission, the text concluded with the name of the signatory, Mr. Sessions.
Later Thursday, a federal appeals court heard a case on whether Mr. Mueller’s appointment was constitutional, telling lawyers representing both the special counsel’s office and a person subpoenaed by that office to pretend the arguments were actually taking place before Mr. Sessions’ ouster. U.S. Circuit Judge Karen Henderson added that the court would likely request further briefing on what the change would mean for Mr. Mueller’s authority.
Mr. Whitaker can serve for up to 210 days, or longer if the Senate is still considering a different nominee. He isn’t likely to be a leading nominee for the post, according to one White House adviser, and cannot continue to serve as acting attorney general if he is nominated, under rules governing such nominations.
The White House is considering several candidates to nominate to replace Mr. Sessions. They include former federal prosecutor and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a person familiar with the matter said. A person close to Mr. Christie said he is aware that he is under consideration for the attorney general post and would consider it seriously if he was offered the job.
Mr. Mueller’s inquiry has resulted in guilty pleas from a series of Trump campaign aides, primarily for lying to investigators or financial crimes, and the indictment of two dozen Russian nationals. His investigative team also has been focusing on whether several conservative political figures knew in advance about WikiLeaks’ planned release of thousands of hacked Democratic emails in the 2016 campaign.
—Peter Nicholas and Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article
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