Trump Says He Didn't Ask Whitaker to Change Hush-Money Probe
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump denied a New York Times report that he asked then-Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to intervene in a federal investigation of hush-money payments to the president’s alleged former mistresses during the 2016 election campaign.
“No, I didn’t,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of fake news out there.”
The Times reported earlier in the day that Trump had asked Whitaker whether Geoffrey Berman -- the U.S. attorney in Manhattan and a Trump ally the president appointed to the position -- could be put in charge of the investigation. Berman had previously recused himself from the investigation, citing a conflict of interest.
If Trump asked for an ally to be put in charge of an investigation involving himself it could be viewed as an attempt to obstruct justice that could further add to his legal troubles. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has already been probing whether Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation into Russian election meddling by firing FBI Director James Comey and through other actions.
If the president tried to interfere with a criminal prosecution by putting an ally in charge that “is clearly an attempt to obstruct justice,” said Andrew Napolitano, a former judge who’s a Fox News commentator.
“That is an effort to use the levers of power of the government for a corrupt purpose to deflect an investigation into himself or his allies,” Napolitano said.
Whitaker was asked during a House Judiciary committee hearing whether he ever had any conversations about reassigning or firing anyone with the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is handling the probe into the hush-money payments. Whitaker didn’t answer.
The Justice Department issued a statement Tuesday that sidestepped the question of whether Whitaker and Trump discussed putting Berman in charge but asserted that Trump never demanded a commitment from Whitaker to intervene in any investigation into the president.
“Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation.’ Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
The committee’s chairman, Jerrold Nadler, called the report about Trump’s conduct “very concerning” and said it was "one of the many reasons" Whitaker must come back to clarify his testimony.
Nadler, a New York Democrat, sent a letter to Whitaker last week asking him to clear up some of his answers, saying that committee members found his testimony “unsatisfactory, incomplete, or contradicted by other evidence.” He cited Whitaker’s response to questioning about whether he’d been asked to make changes to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York among the examples in which he said the committee had information that contradicted Whitaker’s testimony.
Trump has fumed to advisers about a search by federal prosecutors of his lawyer and former fixer Michael Cohen’s office and residences in April 2018, and those close to Trump have feared the investigation into Cohen could extend deeper into Trump’s business.
In August, Cohen admitted he made illegal campaign contributions at the behest of Trump and pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in connection with the hush-money payments. In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and admitted that he spoke with Trump and Russian officials as late as June 2016 about a potential business deal in Moscow that Cohen told Congress had ended months earlier.
Cohen is due to turn himself in on March 6 to begin serving a three-year prison sentence.
(Updates with Justice Department statement in ninth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Billy House and Chris Strohm.
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