Grassley defends acting AG against calls for recusal

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Trump: 'Great to see' Pelosi plan to lower drug prices Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices 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 TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE named last week to oversee the Justice Department following the ouster of former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick Democrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' MORE, has made multiple remarks critical of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation 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 WydenOvernight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Microsoft to provide free updates for voting systems running Windows 7 through 2020 Interior watchdog investigating political appointees' review of FOIA requests 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 FlakeFlake donates to Democratic sheriff being challenged by Arpaio in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says US-China trade talks to resume, hails potential trade with Japan, UK Joe Arpaio to run for Maricopa County sheriff in 2020  MORE (Ariz.) want to take steps to prevent Whitaker from shutting down the Mueller investigation.

Flake and Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate committee approves 0 million for state election security efforts Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Bill to return B in unredeemed bonds advances 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 McConnellDC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Overnight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts 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