In a moment reminiscent of his 2017 interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, Donald Trump appeared to admit in a Wednesday interview that he appointed Matt Whitaker — an outspoken critic of the Russia collusion investigation — as acting attorney general to quash the investigation run by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
In his May 2017 interview with Holt, Trump was asked why he had just fired FBI Director James Comey, and his response went straight to the Russia investigation, as CNBC reported, with Trump saying, "when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should've won.'"
Comey at that time was leading the investigation into collusion in the 2016 presidential election between the Trump campaign and Russia. When Mueller was appointed Special Counsel about two weeks later, he assumed responsibility for the Russia probe, which Trump labeled a "witch hunt." Mueller in 18 months has returned 32 indictments, by Vox.com's count, including convictions of Trump's former campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, national security adviser, and a foreign policy adviser.
If Trump fired Comey to halt the Russia investigation, the move could constitute obstruction of justice, according to The Washington Post, a possibility now under investigation by Mueller.
But in what appears to be a similar admission, in Wednesday Oval Office interview with the conservative news site Daily Caller, Trump directly connected his appointment of Whitaker to replace fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions to his desire to end the Russia investigation.
Asked for his "thinking" on Whitaker, Trump response by attacking the Mueller investigation.
"You know, look, as far as I'm concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had," Trump said. "It's something that should have never been brought. It's an illegal investigation. And you know, it's very interesting because when you talk about not Senate confirmed, well, Mueller's not Senate confirmed.... He's heading this whole big thing, he's not Senate confirmed. So anyway, I have a lot of respect for Matt Whitaker, based primarily on reputation."
Whitaker in interviews over the past year has not only attacked the Mueller investigation, likening the investigators to a "lynch mob," as The Atlantic noted, and even clearly spelling out his plan to halt the probe.
" I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced, it would recess appointment and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt," Whitaker said in a CNN interview last year.
"Never before has a president appointed an acting attorney general who is on record describing how the president could curtail an ongoing investigation of the president's conduct," wrote Noah Bookbinder, Richard Painter and Norman Eisen of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in a USA Today op-ed on Thursday.