Incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said that conversations between President Trump and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation are “wrong on every level.”
“The president of the United States is discussing a case in which he’s implicated with the attorney general. That is wrong at every level and of course it will taint anything this acting attorney general does,” Schiff said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
CNN reported that Trump vented his frustration with Mueller’s investigation after his former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to charges brought against him by the special counsel’s office. Cohen also pleaded guilty to a handful of bank and tax fraud charges, as well as campaign finance violations, in a case in New York that was originally referred to federal prosecutors in Manhattan by the special counsel.
“This is a real assault on the rule of law and we’re going to scrutinize every single action by Matt Whitaker so the public knows just what he does,” Schiff said.
Schiff also criticized Whitaker for not recusing himself from oversight of the Mueller investigation, despite a recommendation by Justice Department ethics officials to do so to avoid the appearance of impartiality.
“The ethics lawyers told him that he should not participate, should not supervise this investigation, that the public wouldn’t have confidence in his judgments, and now we learn they’re discussing the case,” Schiff said.
Because of that recommendation, Whitaker should at least not supervise the Southern District of New York, where Cohen was prosecuted, “because you’re required to remove yourself when there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest.”
“This is exactly what we feared about Whitaker’s appointment,” said Schiff. “We are going to scrutinize every single action by Matt Whitaker to make sure that the public knows just what he does.”
Schiff then argued that Trump could be indicted for crimes — crimes which Cohen all but named the president as being part of during his sentencing earlier this month.
“When you look at the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinions, there’s a very powerful case to be made that you can indict a sitting president. It’s more difficult to make the case that they should be tried while they’re in office because that would be very disruptive of the president’s responsibilities,” he said. Legal experts have argued that OLC memos from 1973 make the president immune from a federal indictment.
“The only argument made was that it would stigmatize the president. Well, the Justice Department already crossed that Rubicon when they said Individual Number One, when they said the president was implicated in those two crimes,” Schiff said, citing the plea agreement Cohen reached with federal prosecutors both in New York and on Mueller’s team.
Schiff also said that he will use his subpoena power as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to obtain and release Mueller’s final report if he has to.
“I’m prepared to make sure we do everything possible so that the public has the advantage of as much of the information as it can,” Schiff said. “This case is just too important to keep from the American people what it’s really about.”
Whitaker was appointed in early November to take over as acting attorney general from Jeff Sessions, whom Trump forced out.
Earlier this month, Trump nominated Bill Barr to be the next attorney general, and he is expected to be confirmed in early 2019.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein still oversees the bulk of Mueller’s investigation. Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017 to investigate Russian election interference and possible connections to the Trump campaign.