KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general facing legal challenges to his appointment, eulogized his old boss and praised his new one on a visit to Kansas City, Mo., Thursday.
President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Nov. 7 and replaced him Whitaker, a former Iowa Hawkeyes tight end and U.S. attorney in Des Moines, who was Sessions' chief off staff before the move.
Speaking to a room of 700 law enforcement officials at a conference sponsored by the Department of Justice, Whitaker stayed away from lightning rod topics like special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation or Sessions' swift dismissal. But he spoke highly of Sessions' commitment to crime fighting.
"We owe him a debt of gratitude," he said.
His roughly 17-minute speech focused on Project Safe Neighborhoods, a community-based effort to reduce violent crime.
Democrats have called for Whitaker to recuse himself from Mueller's investigation because he has been critical of it. Shortly after his appointment, a trio of Senate Democrats sued Whitaker and Trump over what they said was a constitutional violation.
Trump is scheduled to speak on the conference's closing day Friday.
Trump's presence at the conference Friday shows his commitment to supporting law enforcement and keeping people in the United States safe, Whitaker said.
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The night before, Whitaker said, U.S. attorneys questioned how he got the president to come for the conference.
"The simple answer is, I asked him," Whitaker said.
(Anita Kumar contributed to this report.)
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