All the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter on Friday to the Justice Department’s inspector general calling for him to scrutinize and potentially investigate the department’s ethics practices.
In the letter, the lawmakers expressed concern about Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s decision to oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, despite having previously criticized the investigation and claimed it would find no evidence of coordination between Trump World and the Kremlin. The letter will not necessarily result in any action from the DOJ’s government watchdog.
“Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s decision to disregard the advice of career DOJ ethics officials to recuse himself from oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicates that DOJ’s internal ethics procedures have failed,” the senators wrote. “Not only does this raise serious concerns about Mr. Whitaker’s current actions as Acting Attorney General, but it also calls into question DOJ’s ethics procedures to assess and address potential conflicts of William P. Barr, President Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General.”
Career ethics officials at the department recommended to Whitaker that he recuse himself from supervising the Mueller investigation, according to a letter from a top DOJ official to Congress. But Whitaker did not take their advice, and now supervises the probe he once claimed would be fruitless.
That decision has raised concerns that political calculations will inform decisions about the investigation into Russia’s intrusion in the 2016 election. Whitaker, as acting attorney general, has insight into the moves Mueller and his team are making. If he still holds that post when Mueller files a report on the probe, he will decide whether or not to make the report public (though refusal to release it would result in a court fight).
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from supervising the Russia probe, citing his work on Trump’s 2016 campaign. That decision drew him unremitting vitriol from the president, who even said he wouldn’t have given Sessions the job if he’d known he would recuse.
The authors of Friday’s letter–all Democrats–wrote that the situation has, in their view, raised broader concerns about the Justice Department’s ability to ensure that people the White House installs there behave ethically.
“One of your mandates under the Inspector General Act of 1978 is to keep ‘the Congress fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies relating to the administration of such programs and operations and the necessity for and progress of corrective action,’” the letter says. “Consistent with that mandate and OIG’s past efforts related to DOJ’s ethics program, we request you promptly assess any problems and deficiencies in DOJ’s ethics program as it pertains to senior political appointees. That assessment should cover DOJ procedures for obtaining and reviewing information about anonymous or otherwise non-public funding for a nominee’s previous work that could cause conflicts of interest.”
Michael Bromwich, formerly the inspector general for the Justice Department, told The Daily Beast a request like this one wouldn’t necessarily result in any action.
“Letters like this come in all the time,” he told The Daily Beast. “One of an IG’s most difficult tasks is making decisions about whether to pursue investigations or reviews that are requested by members of Congress. On the one hand, you want to be responsive and some very good ideas and suggestions may come through those letters. On the other hand, you don’t want to make yourself appear to be a political tool of either house, or either party in either house or on any committee, so that you become a pawn of politicians in a political game.”
He added that the fact that the request came from members of the party in the minority may also be part of the inspector general’s consideration of the request.
“There is, at least in the back of your mind, concern about the budgetary consequences for the IG of saying yes or no,” he said. “If I say yes to a request like from the minority, does the majority take it out on me later? It shouldn’t be a consideration, but it is.”
Additional reporting: Sam Stein