When Matthew Whitaker assumed the role of acting attorney general in November 2018 after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired, it was part of a nefarious scheme by Donald Trump to subvert the Justice Department’s chain of command.
Many critics of the administration argued that his appointment was an unconstitutional effort by the president to take control over the many investigations into him and his allies. This included Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe as well as other Justice Department investigations in the Southern District of New York (SDNY).
Whitaker failed to help Trump, however, and both Mueller and the SDNY have moved forward with their investigation. Mueller has been issuing subpoenas to more people and organizations, and he recently indicted Roger Stone. The SDNY has been busy interview executives of the Trump Organization and have obtained documents connected with the Trump Inauguration Committee.
In an interview with The New Yorker, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt, one of the co-authors of the recent Times report on Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigations, explained why Whitaker failed to fulfill his goal of sidetracking investigations into Trump.
Schmidt said that many career employees in the Justice Department knew that Whittaker was there to do the president’s bidding. But they had their own ways of undercutting Whitaker, making him completely ineffective in his temporary job.
“I think that, when we get a fuller picture of this, we will continue to see that Whitaker ran into forces that were far greater and stronger than he thought he would face, and ultimately was not that successful in helping the President.”
“I do think it is harder to influence investigations once they are so far along the way that the Mueller one is, and the way that the Southern District of New York one on Cohen is. And, because of that, I think even if you are the Attorney General, in charge of the department, you are constrained in some ways about what you can and cannot do.”
He also explained what held Whitaker back, saying:
“I think people at the Justice Department. I think it’s because of a structure of how the Justice Department operates, how cases are run by U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country, and the fact that so many people are paying attention to this issue, whether it’s Capitol Hill or the media.”
Schmidt’s answer confirms what many people suspected when Whitaker took the job as interim attorney general.
They knew that the structure of the Justice Department would prevent him from doing anything to subvert the fundamental purpose of the investigations — to uncover the facts and the evidence about Donald Trump’s activities.
The recent blockbuster report from the Times said that Trump asked Whitaker to put the recused U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman from SDNY back in charge of the investigation of him and his businesses. But Whitaker reportedly refused, as Berman was rightly recused from the probe. This shows that Whitaker was aware of the internal pressures and the structural impediments to accomplishing the president’s goals of obstructing the investigations.
It is possible that Whitaker did share information about Mueller’s probe with the president and his lawyers, and this might in some way help Trump in combating evidence from the prosecutors.
Newly confirmed Attorney General William Barr might possibly still find ways to subvert the Mueller and SDNY probes, but he will be operating in a fishbowl. Everyone will be watching what he does, just as they did with Whitaker.
Before his appointment Barr wrote a troubling memo criticizing Mueller. He may be fair in his oversight of the investigations into Trump, or he may be biased. It is too early to tell.
But if the experiences of Matthew Whitaker are any indication, Barr will have a very difficult time helping Donald Trump achieve his ultimate aim: to stop all Justice Department investigations into his criminal behavior.