(Bloomberg) -- Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker decided not to recuse himself from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation even though a Justice Department ethics official said a formal review would likely recommend a recusal, an agency official said.
Whitaker never asked for a formal ethics recommendation, deciding instead, along with a small group of personal advisers, that there was no precedent for him to recuse under these circumstances, the official said.
The official revised an account from earlier Thursday that Whitaker was told by ethics officers that he doesn’t have to recuse himself from being involved in the Mueller probe.
Instead, ethics officials at the department informed Whitaker that he didn’t have a direct conflict of interest that would obligate them to issue a formal recommendation that he recuse himself.
But one top official told Whitaker’s advisers that, if he asked for a recommendation, he would be told he should recuse himself in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Whitaker wasn’t required to ask for a formal recommendation and he didn’t do so, the official said.
Democrats have demanded that Whitaker step back from Mueller’s continuing investigation because he openly criticized the probe in interviews last year before he joined the Justice Department.
Trump named Whitaker to run the Justice Department temporarily after ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who the president had repeatedly criticized for recusing himself from the probe.
As Mueller’s new boss, Whitaker has significant power to hobble or even halt the investigation that Trump has long called a “witch hunt.” Mueller is probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, whether Trump or any of his associates conspired in the meddling and if Trump obstructed justice.
As a CNN commentator, Whitaker openly argued last year that Mueller’s probe needs to be curtailed, even describing a scenario in which an acting attorney general doesn’t fire Mueller but “just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt.”
Trump has nominated William Barr, to become the next attorney general. He held that post in the George H.W. Bush administration. He must still be confirmed by the Senate next year.
--With assistance from Bill Faries.
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