A year-and-a-half before he took responsibility for overseeing the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Matthew Whitaker, now the acting attorney general, had already reached a conclusion.
“The truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign,” he said in an interview on the Wilkow Majority show. “There was interference by the Russians into the election, but that was not collusion with the campaign. That’s where the left seems to be combining those two issues.”
“The last thing they want right now is for the truth to come out, and for the fact that there’s not a single piece of evidence that demonstrates that the Trump campaign had any illegal or any improper relationships with the Russians. It’s that simple.”
What Whitaker was basing this declaration on is unclear. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the matter was just three months old at the time and it has—and remains—a lock box when it comes to its findings.
But Whitaker no longer is merely just offering his analysis on the matter. On Wednesday he became the top law-enforcement officer in the nation and, with it, was given effective control of the Mueller probe. His critics—and there are many—fear he will use his leverage to either curtail or fully end the investigation. And they’ve pointed to comments like the one he made to the Wilkow Majority show as evidence that he not only brings a clear bias to his post but has pre-determined the outcome of the investigation he’s now running.
There are numerous other comments, too.
Less than two years ago, Whitaker was a former federal prosecutor and twice-failed political candidate in charge of a small conservative government watchdog group with only a handful of employees. But for conservative media audiences, he is quite familiar.
Over the past three years, he used his position as the executive director of conservative government watchdog group Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) as an opportunity to become a right-leaning political pundit, penning opinion pieces in USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and appearing regularly across conservative talk-radio shows and cable news.
The majority of Whitaker’s media appearances focused on the promotion of one argument: Liberals in government are working to undermine Americans in a variety of troubling and unproven ways. And no one is a bigger threat than Mueller.
Before joining the DOJ, Whitaker was one of the biggest critics of Mueller’s probe, dubbing it “political” and criticizing its mere existence in numerous media appearances.
During interviews with right-wing radio hosts over the last two years, Whitaker admonished Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for appointing Muller last year, characterizing the probe as a drain on department resources, and suggesting the special counsel’s allies were leaking information designed to make him “look productive and on top of things.”
He expressed sympathy for former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty as part of Mueller’s investigation, and in one interview last year, Whitaker said that “the real Russian ties were with Hillary Clinton.”
Prior to becoming a legal pundit, Whitaker worked as a U.S. Attorney in the George W. Bush administration. After that, he ran a series of businesses and an unsuccessful primary bid in 2014 for the Iowa Senate seat. Whitaker was also on the advisory board of a patent company that ripped off its customers for millions of dollars.
When he became the head of FACT in 2014, his media presence truly began to grow. Whitaker used that post to rack up countless talk radio hits across the country attacking Democrats. But while FACT billed itself as a nonpartisan watchdog, it served as a way to launder partisan opposition research to the public.
In 2016, according to public records, Whitaker helmed the group. The company paid $180,000 that year to America Rising LLC, an opposition research firm closely aligned with the Republican Party.
In press releases reviewed by The Daily Beast, America Rising touted FACT as a non-partisan government watchdog and highlighted Whitaker’s political commentary criticizing Democrats. A person familiar with the FACT/America Rising arrangement told The Daily Beast that on some occasions, America Rising’s opposition researchers would share material targeting Democratic candidates with FACT.
FACT would then file ethics complaints based on that research and publicly denounce the Democrats in question. America Rising, subsequently, would promote FACT’s denunciations to reporters as evidence that the Democrats in question were facing non-partisan criticism.
FACT has also criticized some Republicans, including Reps. Mark Meadows and Robert Pittenger. Joe Pounder, who heads America Rising, declined to comment on the group's work with FACT.
“FACT is a non-partisan ethics watchdog which holds accountable government officials from both parties, as well as associated political campaigns and organizations,” a spokesperson for FACT said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Since 2014, FACT has filed over 80 complaints, over 60 of which were filed under Mr. Whitaker’s leadership. Mr. Whitaker served as Executive Director of FACT from 2014 to 2017. During his tenure, Mr. Whitaker conducted numerous media interviews analyzing government ethics issues and investigations including his time as a paid contributor to CNN.”
In many ways, Whitaker is the textbook Trump-era political talking head.
He spent most of his interviews arguing that Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted and that the FBI was providing “political cover” to the former secretary of state for “not releasing probably very damaging emails.”
He also criticized her political positions, calling her 2016 campaign platform a “grab-bag of failed and regurgitated liberal policies,” and lamented that “since she fell out of the public eye, it has not been as much fun” to conduct investigations into politicians.
Whitaker continued to provide Republicans with political cover after Trump won office in 2016, even pushing a conspiracy theory that suggested a Democratic House IT staffer, not Russian hackers, could have been behind the theft of Democratic emails in 2016.
Whitaker leveraged his position at FACT to draw attention to the case of Imran Awan, a former IT staffer for House Democrats who was charged with bank fraud in 2017.
Awan’s arrest drew plenty of attention from conservative media outlets, which spun elaborate theories speculating that Awan was either involved in nefarious activity with his Democratic bosses, spying on Democrats for a foreign intelligence agency, or even behind the hack of Democratic emails stolen by Russia.
Despite pressure from conservatives, the Awan case was ultimately a letdown for the right. Awan pleaded guilty only to lying on a bank fraud application and avoided a prison sentence. Prosecutors on the case even took the unusual step of saying in court documents that they had investigated the conspiracy theories alleging that Awan was behind any email leaks and found no evidence for them.
At the height of conservative interest in the Awan investigation, Whitaker and FACT called for an ethics investigation into the relationship between Awan and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), one of Awan’s employers.
In an August 2017 radio interview, Whitaker implied there could be a link between Awan and the Russian email hack that cost Wasserman Schultz her position as head of the Democratic National Committee.
“Whether it’s related and part of a bigger theme, that’s what we have to see,” Whitaker said.
In the same interview, Whitaker complained that the Awan case wasn’t getting as much attention from the media as the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
“If it was Russia and Trump, there’d be a 24-hour news vigil,” Whitaker said.
—With additional reporting from Pilar Melendez.