Grassley defends acting AG against calls for recusal

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward 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 TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE named last week to oversee the Justice Department following the ouster of former Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump: Appointing Sessions was my biggest mistake Nikki Haley blasts Roy Moore's Senate bid: 'He does not represent our Republican Party' Time magazine: Trump threatened reporter with prison time MORE, has made multiple remarks critical of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report 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 Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Grassley announces opposition to key Trump proposal to lower drug prices Exclusive: Trump administration delayed releasing documents related to Yellowstone superintendent's firing 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 FlakeJeff Flake becoming Harvard fellow Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment MORE (Ariz.) want to take steps to prevent Whitaker from shutting down the Mueller investigation.

Flake and Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion 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 McConnellBiden, Eastland and rejecting the cult of civility California governor predicts 'xenophobic' GOP will likely be third party in 15 years This week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request 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