Acting AG Whitaker Praises Trump on Economy in Iowa Homecoming

(Bloomberg) -- Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker found an opportunity to praise President Donald Trump in a home-town appearance in Iowa Wednesday that provided a refuge from the uproar in Washington over his appointment.

“Many seniors in Iowa and across America spent their whole lives working, saving, and sacrificing so that they could enjoy a secure and peaceful retirement,” Whitaker told a conference in Des Moines on protecting senior citizens from fraud and abuse. “Quite frankly, under President Trump, their 401(k)s are doing pretty good right now.”

Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and named Whitaker as his acting replacement last week, creating controversy over whether Whitaker is eligible for the job and criticism from Democrats who say the president may have been installed him to curb or end Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Whitaker took no questions from reporters during his visit and offered only a passing acknowledgment of the debate over his ascension at the Justice Department.

“You may have heard, there has been a change or two,” he joked at the start of a meeting with local and federal law enforcement officials at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Iowa, which he once headed.

“The Trump administration will always be a law-and-order administration,” he said. “We recognize that public safety is the government’s first and most important priority.”

Coming Home

“It’s good to be home,” the staunchly conservative former University of Iowa football star said at the event on protecting seniors. “Iowa has shaped my values.”

Top Democrats have called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, citing his past hostile statements toward the probe and alleging he has conflicts of interest.

Whitaker has indicated only that he’ll consult with Justice Department ethics officials about any matters that may warrant recusal.

Critics also have challenged whether Whitaker is eligible to serve as acting attorney general because he wasn’t confirmed by the Senate in his previous post as chief of staff to Sessions.

The state of Maryland asked a federal judge on Tuesday to rule the appointment wasn’t legitimate, but the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a legal opinion Wednesday saying Whitaker is eligible to lead the department on an acting basis.

Whitaker has said the probe risked becoming a “witch hunt,” adopting Trump’s favorite phrase to denounce it.

Whitaker could take a number of actions affecting Mueller’s probe because he controls the composition of Mueller’s team and its budget and he must approve major investigative steps, including indictments.

After taking the job, Whitaker put out a statement saying he would lead the department “with the highest ethical standards.”

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