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House Democrats rally to protect Mueller after Sessions' ouster

Chris Megerian and Del Quentin Wilber, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats scrambled Thursday to shield the special counsel investigation after the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, signaled he would not recuse himself from supervising the high-stakes probe even though he has repeatedly denounced it in public.

They vowed to revive congressional inquiries of President Donald Trump and formally requested that senior administration officials -- including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel -- preserve records involving the special counsel's office and Trump's decision to oust Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Thousands of protesters rallied in front of the White House, in New York's Times Square and elsewhere to demand Whitaker not interfere with the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Many fear Whitaker will cut Mueller's budget or impede the probe in a partisan effort to protect Trump from further scrutiny.

The brewing political and legal battle erupted two days after Democrats won a majority in the House, empowering them to hold oversight hearings and demand sensitive documents, and one day after Trump named Whitaker as the interim replacement for Sessions, who was forced to resign.

"We're not as powerless as we were on Monday," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. "We now have the authority to be a check on abuses of power."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is front-runner to become House speaker and had called for unity after Tuesday's hard-fought midterm election, tweeted that it was "impossible to read" Session's ouster "as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine and end Special Counsel Mueller's investigation."

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"Given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation," Whitaker should follow in Sessions' footsteps and recuse himself, she added.

Whitaker does not plan to step aside from supervising Mueller because he was not a government official when he criticized the investigation, according to a person familiar with his thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Democrats, ethics experts and some former Justice Department lawyers expressed concern about Whitaker's sharp criticism of the federal investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, and whether Trump or his aides cooperated with it or committed other crimes.

In June 2017, for example, Whitaker dismissed the central question that Mueller's team is trying to answer, saying in a SiriusXM satellite radio interview unearthed by The Daily Beast that "the truth is there was no collusion with the Russians and the Trump campaign."

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