President Donald Trump told Fox News he wasn’t aware Matt Whitaker was a sharp critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation before he named him acting attorney general.
In an interview that aired on “Fox News Sunday,” Trump told host Chris Wallace he “didn’t know” Whitaker’s past remarks on the Russia probe, but that he didn’t believe it would have “any impact” on the investigation.
“He’s right,” Trump said about Whitaker’s past criticism of the probe. “What do you do when a person’s right?”
Repeating his constant refrain that there was no collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia, Trump reiterated that Whitaker “happened to be right” in criticizing the Mueller probe.
Trump said he personally did not plan to get involved in any decision on the future of the investigation, but that it would be “up to” Whitaker on whether it continues.
Trump named Whitaker as acting attorney general as he announced on Nov. 7 that Jeff Sessions was stepping down from the post. Whitaker, a former federal prosecutor, had served as Sessions’ chief of staff.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pushed back on Trump’s appointment of Whitaker, who they worry could end or kneecap Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether the president obstructed justice.
Whitaker, during an interview with CNN in July 2017, suggested that a potential future replacement for Sessions wouldn’t need to fire Mueller to stymie the investigation.
“I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general does not fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said at the time.
In August 2017, roughly a month before his appointment as Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker penned an Op-Ed for CNN in which he suggested the Russia investigation was “going too far” and could be “a witch hunt.”
Trump claimed last week that he hadn’t met Whitaker prior to appointing him to head the Justice Department, despite having told “Fox & Friends” in October that he knew him.
“I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy,” the president had told the hosts of his favorite cable news program. “I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”
This story has been updated with Trump’s past comments about knowing Whitaker.