WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ignoring advice from Justice Department ethics lawyers, acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker will not recuse himself from overseeing the probe into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, a source said on Thursday.
Ethics experts in the Justice Department recommended that Whitaker, who made comments critical of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation before taking office, should not supervise the probe, said the source, who has knowledge of the situation.
Whitaker’s decision was likely to raise new concerns in Congress that he might try to curb or shut down Mueller’s investigation, which President Donald Trump has derided as a “witch hunt.”
Mueller is examining whether Trump’s campaign team colluded with Moscow’s efforts to interfere with the election, and the probe has already ensnared Trump’s former campaign manager, his former personal lawyer and his ex-national security adviser.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and Moscow has said there was no interference.
Whitaker is a Trump loyalist and had criticized the Mueller probe as too far-reaching before he was tapped in November to be acting attorney general.
He replaced Jeff Sessions, who was fired by Trump in large part because Trump was angry that Sessions had bowed to pressure to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
It is unclear how long Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney in Iowa, will oversee the department.
Trump has already picked William Barr to take on the job but his nomination needs to be approved by the Senate.
Democrats and a number of Republicans have raised concerns about Trump’s moves at the Justice Department, with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators renewing a push for legislation to protect the special counsel.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has opposed any such legislation.
Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also a Republican and hopes to lead the Senate panel overseeing the Justice Department next year, met with Whitaker on Thursday and expressed confidence the Russia probe would continue.
But the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, said Barr was unfit to serve in the role given that he wrote a memo to the Justice Department saying Mueller should not be allowed to look into possible attempts by Trump to obstruct the investigation.
“The president must immediately reconsider and find another nominee who is free of conflicts and will carry out the duties of the office impartially,” Schumer said.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Lisa Lambert; editing by Tim Ahmann, James Dalgleish and Tom Brown