Subject of Mueller probe boasts of ties to acting AG Matt Whitaker

Sam Clovis, left, and acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Win McNamee/Getty Images, AP)

An obscure conservative podcast recorded by a former Trump administration official last Sunday provided a unique window into acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and the reasons some have found his appointment alarming.

Broadcasting from Hinton, Iowa, a small town in what he called the “reddest part of the state,” Sam Clovis talked about his “very good friend” Whitaker.

“I know Matt very well, I know him well enough that … we’ve chatted on the phone a lot. We’ve texted back and forth,” Clovis said.

In between commercials for “superior” bull semen and the whistle of a passing train, Clovis said Whitaker “has now been given sole responsibility” for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential race.”

Clovis predicted Whitaker would “do what is right” with respect to the Mueller probe.

“He has my 100 percent support and I know he will follow the evidence where it goes, but he will also not let these things get out of out of control … get outside of the confines of what was intended in the special investigator’s position here. So, again, I trust Matt Whitaker to do what he’s supposed to do,” Clovis said.

His comments offered an especially dramatic distillation of Democrats’ worst fears in the wake of Whitaker’s appointment, which stem from his background, ties to Clovis, and potential plans for Mueller.

President Trump has repeatedly called the Mueller probe a “witch hunt.” He also raged at Jeff Sessions, who stepped down from his position as attorney general earlier this month, for choosing to recuse himself from the investigation and any other matters related to the 2016 presidential campaigns. That decision came from the fact Sessions had an active role on Trump’s campaign. The Mueller investigation is looking into whether Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.

Sessions’s recusal would have prevented him from shutting down or limiting the probe.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens as Sam Clovis speaks at a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa. Aug. 25, 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Clovis, who went from being a top campaign aide to holding a position in the Trump administration, offered his own thoughts on Sessions and hinted at what his idea of doing “what is right” with the Russia probe would be during his radio show last Sunday. While Clovis said he had a ”great relationship” with Sessions through the transition, he described the former attorney general’s recusal as “a mistake” that angered Trump and messed up “everything.”

“I don’t know what was in his head when he decided to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, which knocked everything into a cocked hat and left a very bad taste in the mouth of the president,” Clovis said of Sessions, adding, “He probably could have held up and stood up to the whole thing as best as anyone could.”

Along with saying he would prefer an attorney general to stand up to the Russia probe, Clovis dismissed the idea of investigations into Trump in general. He predicted the Democrats would probe the president now that they have taken the House and said these efforts amount to a politically motivated and resentment-fueled “attack on the president of the United States.”

“I just don’t think they can help themselves,” Clovis said of the Democrats. “They hate this president so much and they hate the people who support this president so much. And by the way, folks, that’s you. They hate you.”

Clovis, who also boasted of his closeness to the president on the broadcast, did not respond to requests to comment on this story. His ties to Whitaker have raised eyebrows in the wake of the acting attorney general’s appointment because Mueller’s prosecutors have taken an interest in Clovis.

In October 2017, Clovis was called by Mueller’s team to testify before the investigating grand jury because of his work on Trump’s campaign. During the 2016 presidential race, Clovis supervised a Trump campaign staffer named George Papadopoulos. Emails obtained by the special counsel show Clovis encouraged Papadopoulos’s interactions with Russian officials, including efforts to arrange a meeting for them with Trump.

Sam Clovis arrives at the Capitol to appear before a closed meeting of the House Intelligence Committee, Dec. 12, 2017. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Last year, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his dealings with the Russians. Clovis, who was a co-chairman and policy adviser on the campaign, began working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture after Trump’s election.

Trump tapped Clovis to be the department’s top scientist, but he withdrew his nomination a month after testifying before the grand jury amid controversy over the attention he drew from Mueller’s team. Clovis eventually left the USDA in May of this year.

Clovis’s comments echoed statements Whitaker made before being appointed, indicating he would impose limits on Mueller. Those remarks have been seized on by Whitaker’s critics as a key reason to oppose his leadership of the Department of Justice.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein recounted the comments as she suggested Whitaker would try to unfairly thwart the Mueller probe.

“Mr. Whitaker has been openly hostile to the Mueller investigation. He has said — this is a quote — that the investigation ‘is going too far’ and should be limited. He also suggested that President Trump replace Attorney General Sessions with someone who ‘reduces [Mueller’s] budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,’” said Feinstein.

Clovis’s expression of support for Whitaker touched on all of the issues surrounding the acting attorney general that have sparked controversy. Democrats have raised concerns that Whitaker poses a threat to Mueller, and has a conflict of interest in the Russia probe due to his friendship with Clovis. They have also expressed fears about Whitaker’s history as a political attack dog stemming from his time in Iowa.

One Democratic congressional aide described indications Whitaker would curb Mueller and his links to Clovis as ironclad reasons he should not be allowed to oversee the Russia probe. “The issue of recusal is open and shut,” the aide argued.

“Justice Department conflict of interest rules are designed to ensure impartiality and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. In addition to openly hostile statements about the Mueller investigation, Whitaker’s close ties to Sam Clovis — a Trump campaign co-chair with an interest in the outcome of the Mueller investigation — are disqualifying,” the aide said.

A Democratic Senate staffer described the prospect of Whitaker running the Justice Department as “alarming.”

“I think there’s no question that his background demands greater scrutiny,” the staffer said.

The Iowa Democratic Party has also been pushing for Whitaker to recuse himself from the Mueller probe, as Sessions did.

Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

“Due to his conflicts of interest and ethical failures, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker needs to recuse himself from supervising Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation,” the party said in a statement released on Thursday.

The party’s statement said Whitaker’s “relationship with Clovis is where serious questions come in to play about his credibility.”

Both Whitaker and the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

On the podcast last Sunday, along with his optimism Whitaker would keep the Russia probe from getting “out of control,” Clovis offered some far more personal praise for the acting attorney general.

“He is not a shy, retiring violet I will tell you that,” Clovis said of Whitaker. “He’s big. He’s bigger than life. … He is a real stud of a man out there.”

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