WASHINGTON -- Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added that they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Donald Trump as part of that investigation.
Since stepping into his new role on Wednesday, Whitaker has faced questions -- principally from Democrats -- about whether he should recuse from the Russia investigation, given that he has written opinion pieces in the past about the investigation, and is a friend and political ally of a witness.
On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he has no intention of taking himself off the Russia case.
Ethics officials at the Justice Department are likely to review his past work to see if he has any financial or personal conflicts. In many instances, that office does not require a Justice Department official to recuse, but suggests a course of action. In the past, senior Justice Department officials tended to follow such advice, but they are rarely required to do so, according to officials familiar with the process.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. Officials there have said Whitaker will follow the regular procedure in handling any ethics issues that arise.
On Thursday, a coalition of 18 state attorneys general sent a letter to Whitaker calling on him to recuse himself from the special counsel's Russia probe.
In the letter, they refer to Whitaker's "widely-circulated public comments criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election."
They say Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should "continue to supervise" the Mueller probe.
The letter was signed by the attorneys general of Massachusetts, New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia.
In 2014, Whitaker chaired the campaign of Sam Clovis, a Republican candidate for Iowa state treasurer. Clovis went on to work as a Trump campaign adviser and has become a witness in the investigation by Mueller.
The Justice Department advises employees that "generally, an employee should seek advice from an ethics official before participating in any matter in which he impartiality could be questioned." Regulations prohibit employees, "without written authorization, from participating in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution."
Ethics officials might advise Whitaker that his commentary created the appearance of a conflict of interest and leave the decision to him. If they recommended forcefully that he recuse himself and he declined, Whitaker could then be referred to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, and his license to practice law could be put at issue.
Whitaker's elevation to become the nation's top law enforcement official followed the ouster Wednesday of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions had endured months of public criticism from Trump, who soured on Sessions because he recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation shortly after he arrived at the Justice Department.
The two people close to Whitaker also said they strongly believe he would not approve any request from Mueller to subpoena the president. Mueller and Trump's lawyers have negotiated for months about a possible interview, with no agreement in sight.
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