Former Iowa Hawkeye tight end Matt Whitaker sits down for an interview.
Acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s future is in limbo in the wake of President Donald Trump’s selection Friday of William Barr to lead the Justice Department.
Whitaker, 48, who grew up in Ankeny and formerly served as U.S. attorney in Des Moines, was named interim attorney general Nov. 7 after Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But Whitaker’s brief tenure in the post has been marked by a series of news reports raising questions about his political philosophy, his past actions with the Justice Department, and his business dealings outside of government.
Whitaker, who played tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 1991 Rose Bowl, is a Republican loyalist who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014 and for state treasurer in 2002.
He was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa between 2004 and 2009, had been a private practice lawyer as well, and had more recently served as Sessions’ chief of staff, reportedly developing a good relationship with Trump. Trump said last month that he didn’t know the Iowan.
Trump announced Friday he was nominating Barr as the next attorney general, saying he was his “first choice since Day 1.” Barr had been attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. He has criticized aspects of the Russian investigation and defended many of Trump’s actions, including his firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Trump did not say Friday whether Whitaker will remain with the Justice Department in any role. Press representatives in the Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from the Des Moines Register.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told Iowa reporters Friday she considers Whitaker to be a friend. She said she had talked with Whitaker earlier in the week before Bush’s memorial service.
“I am not sure where he is going to land,” Ernst said. “But I am sure he would take it as it comes and I am sure he will land on his feet.”
Ernst said she has not met Barr, but she was looking forward to meeting him, adding his nomination speaks well to his capability and his character.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Barr as a “talented, well-respected lawyer who has been committed to public service.” But Grassley made no mention of Whitaker in his statement.
Almost immediately after Whitaker became attorney general, he came under a hailstorm of controversy that likely generated some political baggage that he will be forced to carry into the future.
Critics derided his past objections to many U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including Marbury v. Madison, which established the power of judicial review in 1803.
Whitaker was also rapped for his prosecution in 2007 of state Sen. Matt McCoy, a prominent Democrat who was the first openly gay member of the Iowa Legislature. McCoy was quickly acquitted by a federal jury of an extortion charge and angrily claimed the case against him was politically motivated, which Whitaker has denied.
Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general has been challenged in court. In addition, more than 400 former Justice Department officials signed a statement objecting to Trump’s appointment of Whitaker to the temporary post. They said that because Whitaker hadn’t been confirmed by the Senate, his qualifications had not been publicly reviewed and there had been no vetting for potential conflicts of interest.
News reports also said Whitaker had served on the advisory board of a Florida company and had promoted the business despite concerns from customers that the company was defrauding customers of their life savings. The Justice Department has said that Whitaker denied any knowledge of fraudulent activity.
Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker speaks to Iowa county attorneys and local law enforcement in Des Moines.
Kelsey Kremer, [email protected]
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