A trove of Justice Department documents that have been redacted or never released could help to answer recent questions about the partisan loyalties of Pres. Trump’s newly appointed Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.
Prosecutors are professionally obliged to observe strict neutrality in upholding the law, but Whitaker’s appointment has been fiercely challenged by critics questioning his impartiality, especially his past opposition to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president.
Whitaker, whose appointment itself has been challenged as unconstitutional, said that looking into the president’s finances “would be crossing a line” and likened the investigation to a “witch hunt.”
Whitaker’s track record — including some elements not previously reported — portrays a staunch political operative consistently aligned with his party’s political imperatives, working virtually exclusively with a small circle of like-minded political operatives.
Whitaker’s priorities as the U.S. attorney for Iowa’s Southern District mirrored the Bush administration’s national political agenda, even in areas where there was scant evidence of relevance to Iowa.
In one case, Whitaker was accused of prosecuting a gay, Democratic official for political purposes. The 2007 case came at a time when Bush political appointees at the DOJ were revealed to have been pushing for “loyalty” from federal prosecutors.
TYT spoke with one lawyer who sought and failed to get Justice Department documents that might have addressed whether the department’s handling of the case had any political elements. The documents have never been released.
Most recently in his past, Whitaker has drawn scrutiny for his role as executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT). While FACT describes itself as an “ethics watchdog,” its scrutiny is overwhelmingly reserved for Democrats.
For 2015 and 2016, the right-wing group listed Whitaker as its president, according to IRS filings. The foundation, which is bankrolled by a large conservative fund that does not disclose individual donors, listed Whitaker as its only full-time employee during those two years.
In 2016, FACT’s largest expenses in its $1.4 million budget included Whitaker’s $402,000 salary and the independent contractors he hired. Some of the contractors had personal ties to Whitaker. All of them had deep conservative ties, including some with a history of actively enforcing partisan loyalties. FACT’s contractors included America Rising, a group that touched off controversy when it was caught scouring federal employees’ emails for criticism of President Trump.
According to a 2017 report in the New York Times, America Rising used the Freedom of Information Act to request emails of EPA employees deemed critical of the president and then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
According to the IRS filings, FACT paid America Rising $144,000 in 2015 and $180,150 in 2016 for “research” services.
The tax records also show FACT hired Creative Response Concepts, or CRC, the public-relations firm that touched off controversy when it was reported that they helped push a conspiracy theory to rebut a sexual assault allegation regarding Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. (TYT recently reported on CRC’s ties to Vice President Mike Pence.)
FACT paid CRC $133,324 in 2015 and $134,149 in 2016 for “public relations” services.
Although FACT's connections to America Rising and CRC have been previously reported, TYT also found that the group's ties with several Republican-dominated law firms show similar patterns.
Whitaker shelled out $296,780 of FACT’s budget for undisclosed services from the law firm Cooper & Kirk, whose former partner, Brian Callanan, left the firm to join the Trump administration’s Treasury Department. Prior to his time at Cooper & Kirk, Callanan served as staff director for Republican Sen. Bob Portmans’ Permanent Subcomittee on Investigations at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The two other contractors Whitaker hired for legal services also had ties to the GOP. Graves Garrett LLC, a Missouri-based law firm, counts among its partners Todd Graves, chair of the Missouri Republican Party and brother of Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO). As an attorney, Todd Graves made national headlines by representing Tea Party groups alleging IRS discrimination. (Although the controversy was largely debunked, at its height, Whitaker suggested his audit was politically motivated and then proposed eliminating the IRS.)
The other contractor, Kendra Mills Arnold — who is now FACT’s executive director — is also a partner at the Iowa law firm Hagenow & Gustoff, formerly Whitaker, Hagenow & Gustoff, which specializes in election law, among other fields. Founding partner Chris Hagenow serves as Republican majority leader in the Iowa House. He is also a member of the right-wing lobbying group, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Hagenow & Gustoff’s other founding partner, William Gustoff, serves as state Central Committee member and treasurer for the Republican Party of Iowa. Gustoff also served as treasurer for Whitaker’s 2014 Senate run and is listed as FACT’s secretary in its IRS filings.
The only other member of FACT’s board of directors, Treasurer Neil Corkery, also served as treasurer at the Judicial Crisis Network, which, along with FACT, worked to install conservative judges and oppose the confirmation of Pres. Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
According to Federal Election Commission records, Whitaker’s first donation to an individual politician was $250 to then-Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on June 11, 2003.
Whitaker's political career began in February 2004, when Pres. Bush nominated him to serve as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. Whitaker and two other candidates reportedly were recommended by Grassley. (If Grassley remains in his current position as Senate Judiciary Committee chair, he would oversee Whitaker’s confirmation process).
Whitaker’s nomination got held up for four months as Democrats delayed the process for several Bush nominees. “It was the longest four months of my life,” Whitaker later told the Associated Press.
In June of 2004, Whitaker was finally confirmed. The next month, he went to bat for a signature initiative of the Bush administration: Many key components of the USA PATRIOT Act were set to expire the following year, and it was facing strong opposition, even in Iowa.
By a narrow margin, the Des Moines City Council passed a resolution opposing the USA PATRIOT Act. Whitaker spoke in its defense, warning that the resolution, “will send the wrong message to people who want to harm you, me and our children."
In October 2004, with elections right around the corner, Whitaker braced his office to handle incidents of voter fraud. “We're going to have people on staff that day and into the night and beyond that, for anyone who believes voter fraud or election discrimination has occurred,” he told the Des Moines Register.
Studies have found that intentional acts of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. But at the time, the Bush administration was giving it high priority. Three years later, it came to light that the Bush DOJ had been punishing U.S. attorneys who failed to prioritize voter fraud and other crimes with questionable basis in reality. Some U.S. attorneys were fired after apparently not pursuing voter fraud vigorously enough.
Political appointees in the DOJ compiled information about all the U.S. attorneys, assessing their involvement with the Republican Party and rating them based on factors including whether they “exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General.”
In a spreadsheet attached to a Feb. 2007 email later released by congressional investigators, DOJ appointees noted Whitaker’s campaign for treasurer in Iowa. The rating of his loyalty, in a March 2005 email, was redacted, however, along with those of most other U.S. attorneys. The unredacted version has never been released.