Grassley defends acting AG against calls for recusal

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBig Ten moves to conference-only model for all fall sports Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report Sixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention MORE (R-Iowa) says acting Attorney General Matt WhitakerMatthew G WhitakerEx-federal prosecutor: 'Thank God' Whitaker is gone, Barr will bring 'integrity' back to DOJ GOP pollster says Dems are relitigating 2016 election with investigations of Trump Former senior FBI official calls Whitaker hearing ‘disgraceful’ MORE should not have to recuse himself for comments he made “as a private citizen,” but adds the question may soon “answer itself.”

Whitaker, whom President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE named last week to oversee the Justice Department following the ouster of former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions Senate outlook slides for GOP Supreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report MORE, has made multiple remarks critical of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s Russian investigation, which Democrats say disqualifies him from overseeing it.

Asked if Whitaker should step aside as the official in charge of the special counsel’s oversight, Grassley said Tuesday, “There may be reasons, but if the reason you're asking me is because as a private citizen he gave his opinion on certain things then the answer is no.”

“He was a private citizen – what's that got to do with his officials duties? But it really doesn't matter because right now, he's going to go to ethics people and ask if he's got to be recused so that's going to answer itself,” Grassley told Hill.TV in an interview.

Fellow Judiciary member Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), however, blasted Republicans for not fighting Whitaker’s appointment to be the nation’s chief law enforcement official.

“This committee is rubber-stamping anything Donald Trump wants … even when Trump says he wants judges that will do whatever he tells him to – they go along with that – I've never seen anything like that before in 40 years here,” Leahy told reporters.

Democrats question whether Whitaker’s appointment as the acting attorney general is constitutional, given that his previous position did not require Senate confirmation.

“No matter what the Trump Justice Department says, there is no acceptable justification for this appointment — and even conservative justices on the Supreme Court have essentially made that argument. Certainly, no significant actions under Whitaker's authority should be taken at the department,” said Democratic Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenMnuchin: Next stimulus bill must cap jobless benefits at 100 percent of previous income Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits On The Money: Trump administration releases PPP loan data | Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits | McConnell opens door to direct payments in next coronavirus bill MORE (Ore.).

Grassley however, believes Whitaker does have legal authority to take on the acting role.

"I asked [Whitaker] that very question when I talked to him last week on the phone and he says they checked with the [Office of Legal Counsel] and they said ‘yes' and they quoted the 2003 like appointment to the office at OMB – and it was a very similar situation – that OLC [said] was legal at that time,” he said.

Still, Democrats and at least one Republican on Capitol Hill, Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (Ariz.) want to take steps to prevent Whitaker from shutting down the Mueller investigation.

Flake and Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Reid Wilson says political winners are governors who listened to scientists and public health experts; 12 states record new highs for seven-day case averages Hillicon Valley: Facebook takes down 'boogaloo' network after pressure | Election security measure pulled from Senate bill | FCC officially designating Huawei, ZTE as threats Democrats, voting rights groups pressure Senate to approve mail-in voting resources MORE (D-Del.), co-sponsors of the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which the Judiciary Committee approved in April, are pressing for a full Senate vote on the bill as soon as possible.

“Senator Flake and I will be doing a live unanimous consent [Wednesday] morning; Sen. Flake is talking with his caucus and his caucus leadership. It is my hope and expectation that we will find a way to get a floor vote on this bill,” Coons told reporters Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse chairman asks CDC director to testify on reopening schools during pandemic Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Pelosi says House won't cave to Senate on worker COVID-19 protections MORE (R-Ky.) however, has indicated that he has no intention of allowing a stand-alone vote on the measure.

Lacking a vote, Democrats may attempt to attach the bill to a must-pass spending bill.

“There are a variety of approaches that we ought to take, certainly the spending bill is a very strong option. My bottom line is that I believe that there ought to be bipartisan support for ensuring that Bob Mueller can go forward with his work,” Wyden said.

Coons noted one drawback to using the spending bill as a vehicle: “That’s several weeks away, so it's my hope we get something done before that.”

– Molly K. Hooper