During a town hall meeting in Ames on Friday, Sen. Joni Ernst refused to say she’d stop the Trump administration from killing or crippling Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, and Russian involvement in the 2016 Trump campaign.
“I am not going to say today whether I will protect [Mueller], because there’s a lot involved with that in itself,” Ernst said in response to a question from the audience, before insinuating the Mueller investigation may not be legitimate.
Ernst continued, “But I think that we as the American people have the right to demand answers not only from our president, as they’ve done through the Robert Mueller investigation, but also from Robert Mueller on what he has actually done to uncover collusion with the Russians.”
The question of protecting the Mueller investigation has taken on new urgency, since President Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Session to resign, and replaced him with Iowan Matthew Whitaker, who had been Session’s chief of staff.
Whitaker was a repeated guest on cable news and talk radio in 2017, and he always attacked the Mueller investigation, echoing the Trump administration line. Whitaker told another cable news guest that he hoped his cable news appearance would get the attention of the president and earn him a federal appointment. It worked, because in the summer of 2017, Trump took notice of Whitaker’s appearances on CNN, the New York Times reported on Friday.
According to the Times, the legal team defending Trump in the Mueller investigation considered adding Whitaker as “a legal attack dog against the special counsel.” Whitaker was interviewed for the job in July 2017, and although he made a good impression on Trump’s legal adviser, the team did not take him on. Two months later, Whitaker was hired as Sessions’ chief of staff at the White House’s urging.
As soon as Whitaker’s appointment was announced on Wednesday, critics raised concerns that he would work to shut down the special counsel’s office, either by firing Mueller or cutting off resources for the investigation, a strategy Whitaker recommended in a CNN op-ed.
Ernst dismissed such concerns during her Ames town hall.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t,” the senator said, when asked if she would “stand up to the president” if there was an attempt to shut down Mueller’s investigation.
“I don’t know that the investigation itself needs to be protected,” Ernst explained. “We’ve gone two years with a very thorough investigation… Two years of investigations have absolutely nothing to show for it.”
Ernst often uses polite versions of White House talking points — in this case, “absolutely nothing to show for it,” instead of Trump’s “phony witch hunt.” Ernst’s assertion brought an immediate response from the audience, with people pointing out that Mueller has indicted or gotten guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies, as of last month.
State Auditor-elect Rob Sand, a Democrat and the only challenger to defeat an incumbent in a statewide office in last week’s general election, tweeted a response to Ernst.
35 people/entities charged w/ 191 counts so far, but @joniernst says "absolutely nothing to show" for Mueller's work. Like I always say: we need elected officials who put the public ahead of their party, and focus on truth, integrity, and accountability. You can do better, Sen. https://t.co/uxLCSJ6Qmz
— Rob Sand (@RobSandIA) November 10, 2018
Despite having an apparent conflict of interest regarding the special counsel investigation, the Justice Department announced last week Whitaker would take over direct supervision of Mueller. But the Russia investigation isn’t Whitaker’s only potential conflict of interest.
As acting attorney general, Whitaker has authority over the FBI, and on Friday, the Miami New Times revealed that the FBI is currently conducting a criminal investigation of a company Whitaker used to work for. Whitaker served as an advisory board member for World Patent Marketing (WPM), a Florida-based company that claimed to help people market their inventions.
“The Federal Trade Commission shut down World Patent Marketing last year after deeming it a scam,” the New Times reported. “A judgment of nearly $26 million was entered in favor of its jilted customers, and the company and its CEO, Scott Cooper, were banned from working in the invention-promotion business.”
In addition to his advisory role, Whitaker was also featured in social media advertising for the company.
“I would only align myself with a first-class organization,” Whitaker said in a December 2014 statement promoting WPM.
When Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general was announced, Ernst issued a statement calling him “a man of integrity and values.”
As Acting Attorney General, Matt Whitaker is a steady hand that will provide good leadership and judgment, and will ensure that the United States Department of Justice upholds the highest standards of the rule of law.
Ernst’s town hall in Ames was the final stop in her annual tour of Iowa’s 99 counties, and was planned before Whitaker’s appointment.