After he fired former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointed Matthew Whitaker temporarily to the role, President Donald Trump reportedly asked the new acting head of the Justice Department to put a perceived loyalist in charge of the investigation into his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
Cohen has said that Trump directed him to make hush money payments during the 2016 campaign to two women who claim they had affairs with the president years ago.
According to The New York Times, Trump asked Whitaker to install “Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the widening investigation, according to several American officials with direct knowledge of the call.”
Mr. Whitaker, who had privately told associates that part of his role at the Justice Department was to “jump on a grenade” for the president, knew he could not put Mr. Berman in charge because Mr. Berman had already recused himself from the investigation. The president soon soured on Mr. Whitaker, as he often does with his aides, and complained about his inability to pull levers at the Justice Department that could make the president’s many legal problems go away.
Trying to install a perceived loyalist atop a widening inquiry is a familiar tactic for Mr. Trump, who has been struggling to beat back the investigations that have consumed his presidency. His efforts have exposed him to accusations of obstruction of justice as Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, finishes his work investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The inquiry is run by Robert Khuzami, a career prosecutor who took over after Mr. Berman, whom Mr. Trump appointed, recused himself because of a routine conflict of interest.
The Times said it is unclear exactly what Whitaker did following the request from Trump, but there is no evidence he attempted to intervene in the investigation.
He did, however, tell some associates at the Justice Department that the prosecutors in New York required “adult supervision.”
The situation with Whitaker is another example of Trump’s attempts to undermine a growing number of investigations as they creep closer to the president himself.
From his handling of the initial investigation into Russian election meddling and Michael Flynn by the FBI to special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry to the SDNY investigations, Trump has repeatedly tried to hinder or spin as political attack each and every probe.
With regard to Mueller’s investigation in particular, Trump might have only made his legal exposure worse:
Julie O’Sullivan, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University, said she believed there was ample public evidence that Mr. Trump had the “corrupt intent” to try to derail the Mueller investigation, the legal standard for an obstruction of justice case.
But this is far from a routine criminal investigation, she said, and Mr. Mueller will have to make judgments about the effect on the country of making a criminal case against the president. Democrats in the House have said they will wait for Mr. Mueller to finish his work before making a decision about whether the president’s behavior warrants impeachment.