Trump defends choice for acting AG, but also says he doesn't know him

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE said Friday he has not spoken to acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about the Russia investigation, which Whitaker has criticized but now oversees.

Trump defended Whitaker as a "very well respected man in the law enforcement community" but claimed he does not know him personally.

"I didn't speak to 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 about it. I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving for a trip to Paris.

ADVERTISEMENT

Whitaker, who formerly served as chief of staff to ousted Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsAmash: Some of Trump's actions 'were inherently corrupt' 'Persuadable' voters are key to the 2020 election — and the non-screaming news industry Jeffrey Rosen officially sworn in as deputy attorney general MORE, reportedly met with Trump roughly a dozen times in the Oval Office.

In an Oct. 11 interview with Fox News, Trump said "I can tell you Matt Whitaker's a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker."

While Trump sought to place personal distance between himself and Whitaker, he made it clear he stood by his decision to place a loyalist in charge of the Justice Department, a move many see as an effort to seize control of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerGraham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' House progressive: Pelosi 'has it right' on impeachment Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller MORE's probe.

When a reporter asked Trump whether he wants Whitaker to rein in Mueller, the president responded by calling it a "stupid question."

The president also rejected the notion that Whitaker is ineligible to serve as attorney general, a position held by some legal experts who say the Justice Department leader must be confirmed by the Senate.

"As an unconfirmed political appointee, Mr. Whitaker has not been subject to the scrutiny that the Constitution requires to ensure that he has the character, integrity and ability to fulfill the grave responsibilities of this job," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNo agreement on budget caps in sight ahead of Memorial Day recess Ex-White House photographer roasts Trump: 'This is what a cover up looked like' under Obama Pelosi: Trump 'is engaged in a cover-up' MORE (D-N.Y.) wrote Monday in a letter to Trump. 

That argument has been echoed by some conservative legal figures, including George Conway, husband to White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwaySchumer: Trump was 'agitated' during White House infrastructure meeting Trump, Pelosi exchange insults as feud intensifies Trump calls on aides in middle of presser to vouch for him amid Pelosi spat MORE. But Trump on Friday rejected it. 

"Don’t tell me about Whitaker, because Mueller was not Senate confirmed, and Whitaker was, actually,"  the president said. 

The special counsel's office is not subject to Senate confirmation, while the attorney general is. Mueller was also unanimously confirmed by the Senate as FBI director in 2001 and in 2011.

The Senate confirmed Whitaker in 2004 as a U.S. attorney in Iowa, but he left that post in 2009.

Before joining the Justice Department, Whitaker was an outspoken critic of Mueller's investigation and many Democrats and some legal scholars have argued he should recuse himself from leading the probe.

Trump lamented the criticism of Whitaker's past commentary, saying "it's a shame that no matter who I put in, they go after them."

Sessions recused himself from the probe in early 2017 after it was revealed he had conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. while advising the Trump campaign, a decision for which the president never forgave him and ultimately contributed to Sessions's ouster.

Under Sessions, the investigation was overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinJake Tapper fact-checks poster Trump admin created describing Mueller investigation Jeffrey Rosen officially sworn in as deputy attorney general Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller MORE, who expressed interest in protecting it.

Whitaker last year said there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia's interference efforts in the 2016 election, which is the central question of the Mueller probe.

Whitaker has also said he believes Mueller has exceeded the investigation's approved scope and publicly mused about ways he could impede it, including cutting off funding.

The top law enforcement official also has a personal relationship with former Trump campaign aide Sam Clovis, who was interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation. 

As acting attorney general, Whitaker can overrule Mueller on investigatory steps in certain circumstances and request briefings about the progress of the probe. Whitaker is permitted to serve in his post under federal law for up to 210 days, but his appointment can be extended if Trump officially nominates a permanent replacement during that time. 

Trump reiterated his plans to have Whitaker serve in an acting capacity only, but declined to reveal whom he might nominate to replace Sessions. 

The president told reporters he likes Chris Christie (R), who is reportedly under consideration, but said he has not spoken to the former New Jersey governor about the post.

Christie was at the White House on Thursday for an event on prison reform, but Trump said he did not speak to him.