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Trump's new justice chief assailed over anti-Mueller stance
[WASHINGTON] President Donald Trump's new acting Justice Department chief Matthew Whitaker drew tough criticism on Friday over his denial of Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections and his past involvement in a company fined millions for bilking clients.
Just two days after being named acting attorney general, the former US attorney and TV commentator faced questions over his ability to fairly supervise Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia, given Mr Whitaker's proposal last year to starve Mueller of funding.
Questions were also being asked about his qualifications to run a department of 115,000 people and his role on the board of a patent marketing company fined US$25 million last May to settle fraud allegations.
And members of Congress and legal experts also said his appointment was unconstitutional, because he has never been confirmed for top office by the US 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 fulfil the grave responsibilities of this job," top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said in a letter addressed to Trump Friday.
"These concerns are heightened by specific expressions of bias against the special counsel investigation that Mr Whitaker made just last year," Mr Schumer said.
PROPOSED DENYING MUELLER FUNDS
Mr Whitaker was named to the powerful job on Wednesday after Mr Trump fired attorney general Jeff Sessions.
His appointment was greeted by protests calling for the protection of the Mueller probe, which potentially threatens the president and his family.
As Mr Sessions' chief of staff for barely one year, the 49-year-old lawyer and Republican operative is widely thought to have earned Mr Trump's nod for the top job for his opposition to the investigation.
In radio and television interviews last year, Mr Whitaker repeatedly supported Mr Trump's "illegal witch hunt" charge against the investigation.
"The left is trying to sow this theory that essentially Russians interfered with the US election, which has been proven false," Mr Whitaker said in an interview with a conservative Christian broadcaster.
"They are trying to suggest that essentially the Trump campaign had these deep ties into Russia, which is not true."
He subsequently attacked the investigation on CNN as too broad, saying - as Mr Trump has - that Mr Mueller has no business examining the finances and Russian ties of the president's businesses.
And he said the attorney general could kill the investigation by starving it of funding.
CRUCIAL TIME FOR MUELLER PROBE
Mr Whitaker's appointment came at a crucial moment. After staying quiet for two months ahead of last Tuesday's midterm elections, Mr Mueller is believed to be close to unveiling new indictments, possibly against former campaign consultant Roger Stone and Trump's son Donald Jr.
He has also been pressing to interview Mr Trump on his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia and allegations that he obstructed the investigation.
Mr Sessions angered Mr Trump when he recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Mr Whitaker has no such restriction - though some believe he should.
Experts said he has the power to block Mr Mueller from chasing investigative leads and issuing significant subpoenas - of Mr Trump for example - and indictments.
"Starting yesterday, it would have been possible that Whitaker could have been saying, 'No, you can't indict Donald Trump Jr. or whoever,'" no matter how strong the evidence, said Fordham University Law School Professor Andrew Kent.
TRUMP: 'I DON'T KNOW MATT'
Mr Whitaker's appointment left many worried that Mr Mueller could be shut down before he concludes his investigation. Mr Trump rejected Democratic calls for his recusal, saying Friday that comments made on television did not disqualify people from high position.
"He did some shows. So do many of the people you're talking about," Mr Trump said in answer to reporters' questions.Mr
"I think everybody looking at a permanent position in any department has done many shows."
At the same time, Mr Trump appeared to distance himself slightly from Mr Whitaker.
"I don't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for attorney general Sessions," Mr Trump said.
"He was very very highly thought of... It's a shame that no matter who I put in, they go after them."
"The Russia investigation is a hoax... a phony hoax," Mr Trump added.