Whitaker appointment threatens rule of law, Mueller investigation

By: Connor McNairn, Columnist

Since the Democrats’ commanding victory in the 2018 midterms, President Donald Trump has spent much time railing against the press and minority voters, claiming that widespread voter fraud had a profound impact on the election results. While Trump has attempted to provide distraction by way of baseless accusation, another major political development occurred immediately following the Republicans’ shellacking: former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced from his post.

Sessions, who was the first Republican politician of magnitude to support Trump’s bid for president roughly two years ago, found himself in the president’s crosshairs for the majority of his serving as Attorney General. Notably, in March 2017, just two months after Trump’s inauguration, Sessions recused himself from any future inquiries into Trump’s relationship with Russia. Sessions’ recusal came immediately after disclosed reports of his meetings with Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey I. Kislyak.

Since Sessions removed himself from overseeing any probes into the president’s relationship with Russia, President Trump has viewed Sessions as disloyal, with reports even citing that Trump berated Sessions in the Oval Office and pushed for his resignation as early as May 2017.

On Nov. 7, the day immediately following the midterm election, Sessions finally submitted his resignation at the request of the president.

So, what is the overall importance of Sessions’ resignation? After all, resignations in Trump’s cabinet have been commonplace.

Broadly, Trump’s selection of another attorney general has no dire implications on its face. But given that Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker, a former United States Attorney in Iowa and staunch critic of the Mueller investigation, the degree to which Trump will be held accountable for a potential criminal relationship with the Russians is at stake.

Because Sessions recused himself early, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein formerly oversaw the Mueller investigation with a relatively “hands off” approach. But it is unlikely that Whitaker postures similarly.

In August 2017, Whitaker published an opinion column with CNN arguing that, among other things, Mueller should not pry into the president’s personal finances. In fact, Whitaker argued that a broad investigation into Trump’s finances would fall outside the purview of Mueller’s special counsel appointment, thus degrading Mueller’s work as a “witch hunt.”

The problem with Whitaker’s position is that President Trump has long been opaque in his financial disclosures, ranging from his tax returns to his business dealings abroad. Trump’s failure to produce his tax returns violates a precedent established by every sitting president since Nixon, and if his business dealings abroad are extensive and ongoing, the president would be in direct violation of the emoluments clause, as outlined in Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution.

So yes, these things matter.

In addition to his unwillingness to hold the president to account, Whitaker has also been recently accused of campaign finance violations. In 2014, Whitaker launched an unsuccessful bid for an Iowa senate seat. But years after the campaign’s conclusion, and while serving as a government employee, Whitaker’s campaign accepted over $8,000 from outside donors according to the watchdog organization American Oversight.

If the allegations are true, Whitaker would be in violation of the Hatch Act, which bans political activities performed by government employees.

While reports have indicated that special counsel Robert Mueller is authoring his final report, the appointment of a man who has openly criticized an investigation into Trump’s finances and has argued that the investigation should be limited in its financial capacity is an attack on the checks and balances upon which the republic survives.

To any who have followed Trump’s behavior in office, it is no surprise that he has taken action to settle political scores with Sessions and limit an investigation into his seemingly corrupt dealings. If we are to get to the bottom of Trump’s dealings with Russia, we should hope for a swift conclusion from Mueller before Trump’s attempts to destroy the investigation are realized.

 

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