WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump distanced himself Friday from acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker amid intensifying scrutiny of the controversial legal views and business entanglements of the president’s pick to run the Justice Department and assume control of the Russia investigation.
With the White House scrambling to manage public examination of Whitaker's background and resistance to his leadership within the Justice Department, Trump sought to douse speculation that he had installed the partisan loyalist to curtail the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump insisted that he had not spoken with Whitaker about the investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller III - and the president upbraided a reporter when she asked whether he wanted Whitaker to rein in Mueller. "What a stupid question," he said.
Defiant and testy as he departed the White House on Friday morning for a weekend visit to Paris, Trump claimed four separate times that he did not personally know Whitaker, who had been serving as chief of staff at the Justice Department.
"I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump told reporters, adding that he knew him only by reputation.
That claim is false, according to the president's past statements as well as the accounts of White House officials - one of whom laughed Friday at Trump's suggestion that he did not know Whitaker.
Trump and Whitaker have met in the Oval Office several times, and Whitaker briefed Trump when the president preferred not to talk to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he had disparaged publicly, according to White House officials. As Trump said last month on Fox News Channel, "I know Matt Whitaker."
In addition, Trump was aware that Whitaker was a skeptic of the Mueller probe before appointing him, which factored into his decision to tap him over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to two White House advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Meanwhile, Whitaker's public record is drawing fresh scrutiny. That includes comments during his unsuccessful 2014 campaign in Iowa for U.S. Senate that judges should have a "biblical view," that he could not support judicial nominees who are "secular" and that he thinks federal courts are supposed to be the "inferior branch" of the government. Whitaker has criticized the Supreme Court's landmark 1803 ruling in Marbury v. Madison, which serves as the foundation for judicial review of public policy.
Federal investigators last year also looked into whether Whitaker, as an advisory-board member of a Miami patent company accused of fraud by customers, played a role in trying to help the company silence critics by threatening legal action.
But it is Whitaker's outspoken criticism of the Mueller investigation that has led Democrats to allege bias and spurred bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to pass legislation designed to protect the special counsel and prohibit Trump from firing him.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Friday that she is "concerned" about Whitaker's comments about Mueller and the parameters of his investigation. She called for legislation that stipulates the special counsel could be fired only "for good cause and in writing" - and only by a Senate-confirmed Justice Department official, which Whitaker is not.
"Senate debate and passage of this bill would send a powerful message that Mr. Mueller must be able to complete his work unimpeded," Collins said in a statement.
Delivering the Democratic Party's weekly address, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said, "A functioning democracy requires Democrats and Republicans to come together to take action next week to protect special counsel Mueller's investigation."
"If we don't, and Donald Trump is given license to shut down an investigation into his own potential wrongdoing, then our nation starts to devolve into a banana republic," Murphy said in his speech, which was released Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., predicted Whitaker would be "a very interim AG" and said his chamber would not consider legislation to protect Mueller, because "it isn't necessary."
"The Mueller investigation is not under threat," McConnell told reporters Friday in Frankfort, Ky. "The president has said repeatedly he's not going to dismiss the Mueller investigation."
The cascade of events was set in motion Wednesday, the day after the midterm elections, when Trump forced Sessions to resign after complaining bitterly for more than a year that Sessions had not sufficiently protected him from the Mueller investigation.
In replacing him, Trump passed over Rosenstein, who had been overseeing the Russia probe and who White House advisers say the president does not fully trust. Instead, Trump tapped Whitaker, who as a legal commentator opined extensively about the Russia probe.
Whitaker said on CNN that he could envision a scenario where Sessions was replaced and his successor "just reduces [Mueller's] budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt." He also wrote in an online column for CNN - under the headline "Mueller's investigation of Trump is going too far" - that the president was "absolutely correct" to suggest that Mueller would be crossing a red line by examining the finances of Trump and his family.
Meanwhile, an audio recording has circulated online in which Whitaker expresses doubt about any Russian inference in elections at all. "The left is trying to sow this theory that essentially Russians interfered with the U.S. election, which has been proven false," Whitaker said. "They did not have any impact in the election."
That statement directly conflicts with the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the election to help elect Trump and the Justice Department's indictments of more than two dozen alleged Russian agents for interference.
Inside the Justice Department, there is considerable resistance to Whitaker, and some officials there say they think he is wholly unqualified to be acting attorney general.
Many in the building are concerned about infighting, noting that while Whitaker was serving as chief of staff to Sessions he spoke privately with Trump about taking over as attorney general and did not disclose the conversation to Sessions. A person familiar with the matter said Sessions was surprised when The Washington Post first reported on Whitaker and Trump's discussion.
Whitaker also had been seen as gunning for Rosenstein's job, which created awkwardness among the department leadership, officials said.
At the White House as well as the Justice Department, senior aides were taken aback by news accounts of Whitaker's work on the advisory board of Miami-based World Patent Marketing, which was accused of defrauding its customers. Officials said they were particularly stunned by emails showing Whitaker invoked his former job as a U.S. attorney to threaten a man who had complained about the company.
Whitaker also rebuffed an October 2017 subpoena from the Federal Trade Commission seeking his records related to the company, according to two people with knowledge of the case.
Also under scrutiny is Whitaker's work as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. In one of its most publicized cases, Whitaker's office brought charges against an openly gay Democratic state senator, Matt McCoy, for allegedly using his office to extort about $2,000 from a local company that installed motion sensors in the homes of senior citizens to monitor their health.
McCoy said he believed the case was motivated because of his politics and sexual orientation, and a jury found him not guilty. A Justice Department spokesman said the case was brought on its merits, not because of politics. Still, for Whitaker, the case ended in defeat and harsh criticism in the local press.
The White House did not thoroughly vet Whitaker before Trump appointed him acting attorney general, because he was "already chief of staff," according to one White House official. This official said Whitaker is unlikely to be removed from his interim post "unless more comes out."
Inside Trump's orbit, one of Whitaker's advocates has been Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, who has vouched internally for Whitaker's management skills and told White House officials that he would be a more decisive leader than Sessions, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Leo did not know at the time he recommended Whitaker to be Sessions' chief of staff about his work for the suspect patent company but has stuck by the acting attorney general this week, the person said.
Seeking to quell the internal concerns and public doubts that have been raised about Whitaker, Rosenstein praised his new boss in brief remarks to reporters Friday in Alexandria, Virginia.
"I think he's a superb choice for attorney general," Rosenstein said. "He certainly understands the work, understands the priorities of the department. I think he's going to do a superb job as attorney general." He added that he delivered the same message Thursday in a conference call with prosecutors across the country.
Other officials inside the department said they viewed Whitaker as a capable and hard-charging manager who drew on his football experience to try to motivate people. Trump said Whitaker was "a very strong personality - and I think that's what they need."
Justice Department lawyers are bracing for the likelihood that they will face lawsuits over the constitutionality of Whitaker's appointment. A Justice Department official said lawyers feared that challengers would be able to find a judge, at least at the district-court level, who would be friendly to challenges over Whitaker's authority - whether they had merit or not - and stir further anxiety at the department.
Lawyers Neal Katyal and George Conway III, who have emerged as prominent critics of the Trump administration, argued in a New York Times column this week that Whitaker's appointment was unconstitutional because the appointments clause of the Constitution requires "principal officers" who report to the president be confirmed by the Senate. Some other legal scholars dispute that argument.
Seizing on some of their points, however, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote a letter to Trump on Friday calling Whitaker's appointment "unprecedented" and asking him to detail specifically why he had not let Rosenstein, who has been confirmed by the Senate, assume the role, as would have happened by default.
Speaking with reporters Friday, Trump distanced himself from Whitaker, just as he has done with other close associates - including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen - once they become embroiled in controversy.
"Well, Matt Whitaker - I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said. "Matt Whitaker worked for Jeff Sessions, and he was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker."
Trump went on to praise Whitaker as "a very smart man," "very respected" and "at the top of the line" - and claimed his selection to succeed Sessions "was greeted with raves."
Administration officials and outside advisers said later Friday that they were struggling to divine the meaning of Trump's assertion he did not know Whitaker.
"Could he be running from him? I guess it's possible," said one person close to Trump and the Justice Department who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. "I think he's just trying to kick the can and not deal with the situation."
White House officials said Whitaker is unlikely to be nominated as the permanent attorney general, a position that would require Senate confirmation. Trump hinted as much when he addressed reporters Friday.
"We'll see what happens," Trump said, adding that he is considering a number of candidates. "I have some very, very good people. But, I mean, there's no rush."
The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, Rosalind S. Helderman, Michael Kranish, Carol D. Leonnig and John Wagner contributed to this report.