Senate Democrats are trying to block acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker from leading the Justice Department.
What are the details?
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) filed a formal complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against President Donald Trump's “unlawful” appointment of Whitaker.
“Installing Matthew Whitaker so flagrantly defies constitutional law that any viewer of School House Rock would recognize it. Americans prize a system of checks and balances, which President Trump’s dictatorial appointment betrays,” Blumenthal said in an official statement when the complaint was announced.
According to the complaint:
The Constitution’s Appointments Clause requires that the Senate confirm high-level federal government officials, including the Attorney General, before they exercise the duties of the office. The Framers included this requirement to ensure that senior administration officials receive scrutiny by the American people’s representatives in Congress. The Appointments Clause is also meant to prevent the President, in the words of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 76, from appointing officers with “no other merit than that of…possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”
President Trump’s violation of the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, unilaterally preventing members of the Senate from voting on whether or not to consent to Matthew Whitaker serving as a principal Officer, leaves Senators no choice but to seek a remedy through the courts.
Who is Matthew Whitaker?
After former Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Nov. 7 at Trump's request, Trump appointed Sessions's former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, to take his place as acting attorney general.
In 2017, Whitaker wrote an op-ed for CNN in which he argued that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation had come “dangerously close” to crossing a “red line” by investigating the president’s personal finances. As acting attorney general, Whitaker arguably could end Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Republicans senators, including Susan Collins (Maine) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is retiring, and incoming Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) released statements urging Whitaker to keep the investigation ongoing.
In a tweet in which he gave the the congressman an obscene nickname, Trump criticized Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) for questioning Whitaker's appointment.
Mueller, as special counsel, is appointed by the Justice Department and does not need Senate approval. Attorneys general do need confirmation, but the president can appoint a temporary replacement to a post for no more than 210 days. It is not clear at this point how long Trump plans to keep Whitaker in the role of acting attorney general, or if he plans to make the appointment permanent, which would require Senate confirmation.
While it was not for his current role, Mueller was confirmed unanimously by the Senate to be FBI director in 2011. Whitaker was confirmed by the Senate to be a U.S. attorney in Iowa in 2004.