POLITICS

Matthew Whitaker's Time As Trump’s Attorney General Was Unique. His Book Isn’t.

The former acting head of the Justice Department doesn't reveal much about his time in office, but does praise Trump a lot.
Matthew Whitaker, former acting U.S. attorney general, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference 2020 on Feb
Matthew Whitaker, former acting U.S. attorney general, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference 2020 on Feb. 28, 2020. 

Matthew Whitaker should have a fascinating story to tell. The former college football player took over the Justice Department at one of its most consequential moments in modern history, after President Donald Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign because his recusal in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election eventually led to Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation. 

Sessions, in his recent campaign to regain his former Senate seat, has boasted that he didn’t write a “tell-all book” after leaving the Trump administration. Whitaker, even with the release of his new book “Above the Law: The Inside Story of How the Justice Department Tried to Subvert President Trump,” could legitimately make the same claim. 

Marketing aside, Whitaker’s book doesn’t offer much new insight into his unique three-month stint as acting chief of the U.S. Department of Justice. Instead, it fits the same mold as a plethora of books aimed at Trump supporters searching for hardcover-bound reassurance that the president did nothing wrong and was the victim of a witch hunt.

Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) writes in his foreword that Whitaker’s story “looks very familiar to me.” It’ll look familiar to Fox News viewers as well.

There’s “The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump,” by Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett. There’s “The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and Is Working to Destroy Donald Trump,” by Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz. Even former Trump associates caught up in the Russia probe have gotten in on the publishing bonanza: George Papadopoulos wrote “Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump,” while Carter Page’s “Abuse and Power: How an Innocent American Was Framed in an Attempted Coup Against the President” drops in August.

It’s a full field, but you’d think as the country’s former top law enforcement official, Whitaker’s key role would give him something new to contribute  — like recent books by former FBI Director James Comey and former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe (both of whose menacing photos are featured on the cover of Whitaker’s “Above The Law.”)

But Whitaker’s book is light on new revelations. In fact, it’s light on new material altogether. A digital copy of Whitaker’s book, published by the conservative Regnery Publishing, clocks in at 266 pages. Whitaker’s actual new material book is about 130 pages; maybe a couple more if you count the acknowledgments. The rest is padding: DOJ documents, copies of Whitaker’s speeches, and even a copy of the U.S. Constitution “for reader reference.” He even toys with the classic margins trick, indenting his text when he republishes (in full!) an August 2017 anti-Mueller op-ed he wrote for CNN two months before he joined the Justice Department.

Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) writes in his forward that Whitaker’s story “looks very familiar to me.” It’ll look familiar to Fox News viewers as well.

Whitaker, who previously served as one of the nation’s top federal prosecutors as President George W. Bush’s U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, makes some disjointed arguments throughout his literary debut. He refers to himself both as a “battle-scarred veteran of the Justice Department who served two tours” and “an outsider to Justice Department politics.”

He decries “coastal elites” and Washington insiders for caring so much about Ivy League universities even as he repeatedly thanks the powerful (and D.C.-based) Federalist Society and its former top official Leonard Leo (a Cornell Law School graduate) for bringing him to the Trump administration’s attention.

Whitaker writes that he worries that “civic-minded Americans are dissuaded from public service… because of innocent mistakes they have made in the past and the abuse they see heaped on people whose lives haven’t been perfectly curated” just a few pages after he identifies Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), on first reference, as the “nephew of the infamous Professor Leonard Jeffries, whom the City University of New York fired for anti-Semitic and anti-white tirades in the 1990s.”

He derisively refers to former Attorney General Eric Holder as Obama’s “wingman” (as Holder once referred to himself in a 2013 radio interview with Tom Joyner) even as he lavishes praise on Trump, whom he depicts as an “extraordinary person” fighting hard every day for average Americans.

Whitaker writes that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch acted like she was “above the law” because she didn’t recuse herself from the Hillary Clinton investigation after she met with former President Bill Clinton on a tarmac. Yet he also writes glowingly about his experience boarding Marine One and Air Force One with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner as Whitaker was overseeing the Mueller investigation that was scrutinizing both men. 

Matthew Whitaker walks with Jared Kushner at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on December 7, 2018, as they accompany Donald
Matthew Whitaker walks with Jared Kushner at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on December 7, 2018, as they accompany Donald Trump to Kansas City, Missouri. 

There’s barely a cross word about Trump in the book. Whitaker writes that Trump is good at reading people. He writes about all the times he saw Trump working hard. He says Trump has acted “utterly within the law.” He says Trump “genuinely loves the men and women of law enforcement.” He writes that watching Trump “lead effectively, while under withering attacks from the media, Democrats in Congress, former government officials, and even members of his own Justice Department, was like nothing else I’ve witnessed or even read about in American history.” Perhaps the closest he gets to critiquing Trump is a very safe tisk-tisk: he calls Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape “jarringly offensive locker room bravado.”

Whitaker also doesn’t delve into his icy relationship with former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. At one point, he writes that Rosenstein had an “unusual verbal maneuverability that helped him appease Republicans and Democrats alike” and says Rosenstein appears on “both sides of an issue.”

Rosenstein, as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, normally would’ve taken over as acting attorney general after Sessions’ resignation, but DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel opined that Whitaker’s appointment was acceptable, relying on precedent from 1866 — before the Justice Department was even formed.  

Whitaker sprinkles his narrative with the gossipy anecdotes these sorts of accounts include to drive media coverage. But they aren’t all that interesting. Melania Trump apparently ragged on the ill-fitting morning coat the 6-foot-4 Whitaker borrowed from Solicitor General Noel Francisco on a visit to the Supreme Court. Whitaker says he jokingly challenged former chief of staff John Kelly to a fight inside the Oval Office. “[H]e would have won, of course,” Whitaker writes. He recalls that former Vice President Dick Cheney cracked a smile and asked if Whitaker was “having fun yet?” when Whitaker attended President George H.W. Bush’s funeral. 

The book also has the boilerplate attempt at explaining away a scandal. Whitaker does concede he made a mistake working for a Florida-based company ordered to pay nearly $26 million in fines as part of what the Federal Trade Commission called a “scam that has bilked thousands of consumers out of millions of dollars.” Among World Patent Marketing’s products: a “MASCULINE TOILET” designed specifically for “well-endowed men,” which was announced in the same 2014 press release as Whitaker’s appointment.

Whitaker calls his work for World Patent Marketing the “worst $10,000 I ever earned,” and says he wasn’t “the only honest working professional” who worked on the group’s advisory board. He writes that he had “no knowledge of any fraud” committed by the company: “I wish I had never agreed to represent this client, and I feel awful for everyone who was hurt by them (as I, in my own way, was).”

Overall, Whitaker’s jumping timeline makes the scattered chronology of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” seem well-planned. Throughout the book, he claims to speak on behalf of the real men and women in federal law enforcement and assures readers that they agree with his point of view about the actions of Obama administration officials and the FBI’s former leadership. 

Whitaker’s “inside story” starts off alluding to his run-ins with the people he refers to as “hand-wringing bureaucrats,” “unelected federal employees” and the “Deep State.”

“I routinely encountered ― both directly, and indirectly through their anonymous leaks to the media ― powerful, ambitious individuals who held themselves above the law,” Whitaker writes. 

But he never really dishes about who these other members of the “deep state” are, exactly, aside from writing that half of them went to Harvard. Instead, he trots out the Trump world’s familiar villains, dutifully running through the list of the president’s perceived enemies within the DOJ.

Whitaker tries to draw a distinction between his anti-Mueller tweets before his appointment and the private anti-Trump texts exchanged by Lisa Page and Peter Strzok during their involvement in both the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. His argument is that it’s not OK for government officials to privately express political views on government phones — but it is OK for someone who publicly disputed the legitimacy of a law enforcement investigation to be placed in charge of overseeing that investigation by the target of the investigation.

Donald Trump shakes hands with Matthew Whitaker during a Cabinet meeting on Feb. 12, 2019.
Donald Trump shakes hands with Matthew Whitaker during a Cabinet meeting on Feb. 12, 2019.

Whitaker never really grapples with the fact that so many of the enemies in his narrative ― Mueller, Comey, McCabe ― were Republicans. Whitaker instead adopts a common tactic of Trump supporters who try to differentiate between the average federal law enforcement official and the elite officials in leadership. 

Amid his complaints of media leaks, Whitaker claims that unnamed “longtime professional staff” at the Justice Department “privately acknowledged” that the “arrogance characteristic of the Obama administration, personified by his first Attorney General, Eric Holder, created an above-the-law culture inside the Justice Department.”

As evidence, he points to a decade-old controversy over the handling of a civil rights lawsuit against two members of the New Black Panther Party who were confronted by Republican poll watchers as they stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia in the 2008 election, one of them with a billy club in hand. Later in the book, Whitaker goes on to argue that the executive branch can choose not to prosecute whomever for pretty much any reason.

“I could understand if President Trump did in fact tell Comey ‘I hope you can let this go,’” Whitaker writes, excusing Trump’s apparent attempt to intervene in the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “Declining to prosecute someone is an Article II power, as is pardoning criminals,” Whitaker writes.

He also praises Trump’s firing of Comey, whom Whitaker writes “might have become the next J. Edgar Hoover.” He paints himself as an average American fighting along Trump for truth, justice, and the American way. 

“Hell can rain down on me,” Whitaker writes that he was thinking when he became acting attorney general. “But under no condition would I allow partisan Democrats, above-the-law Justice Department leakers, and a biased media to deter me or keep me from doing my job.” 

Matthew Whitaker looks over at then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a roundtable discussion with foreign liaison office
Matthew Whitaker looks over at then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a roundtable discussion with foreign liaison officers at the Justice Department in Washington on Aug. 29, 2018. 

Whitaker only lasted in that job a few months before the confirmation of current Attorney General William Barr. It was ultimately Barr, not Whitaker, who helped shield Trump from some of the fallout of the release of the Mueller report. 

But Whitaker erases any possible doubt about the views he held on the Mueller investigation. He never explains why, exactly, he thinks Trump appointed him to the position, but insists that the president never asked him to fire Mueller. 

“If Mueller wasn’t the driver of this taxpayer-financed two-year-long expedition that resulted in nothing but a salacious dramatization of an innocent President’s torment at the hands of an angry bureaucracy, who was?” he writes.

Whitaker calls the 1999 special counsel regulation that allowed for Mueller’s appointment a “crazy” rule that “basically creates a Grand Inquisitor, someone who is judge, jury, and executioner.” (That would come as a surprise to members of Mueller’s team, who acted as prosecutors before judges and juries.)

After a few dozen pages of familiar complaints about the Justice Department and the “deep state,” Whitaker arrives at his expected, Fox News-friendly conclusion: Trump is the victim. 

“In my mind, if there was any abuse of power, it was committed not by the President but by his opponents who abused the power of the Justice Department to harass the President of the United States for no good reason,” he writes.

“This will sound counterintuitive,” Whitaker writes, “but an independent Department of Justice should concern every American.”

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