WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump distanced himself Friday from his new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, whose past business ties and comments on the Russia investigation and other topics have drawn scrutiny.
Trump elevated Whitaker to the post on Wednesday after forcing out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, installing a Republican Party loyalist to oversee the special counsel investigation into possible ties between Russia and the president’s 2016 campaign.
Since then, Whitaker, who had been Sessions’ chief of staff, has faced pressure from Democrats to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller, based on critical comments he made about the investigation before joining the Justice Department last year.
Those include an op-ed in which he said Mueller would be straying outside his mandate if he investigated Trump family finances and a talk radio interview in which he maintained that there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
There have also been reports about past comments questioning the power and reach of the federal judiciary, and about his ties to an invention-promotion company that was accused of misleading investors.
Asked about Whitaker on Friday, Trump told journalists: “I don’t know Matt Whitaker. 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. He worked for Attorney General Sessions.”
He said he had not spoken with Whitaker about Mueller’s investigation, which until now has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Of the scrutiny Whitaker is facing, Trump said: “It’s a shame that no matter who I put in they go after.”
“He was very, very highly thought of, and still is highly thought of, but this only comes up because anybody that works for me, they do a number on them,” Trump said.
Trump has not said who he will nominate to permanently replace Sessions. That candidate, unlike Whitaker, would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is said to be a candidate, along with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among others.
Trump told reporters he has not discussed the post with Christie, who he said was “a friend of mine” and “a good man.”