The Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel made the right call Wednesday when it issued a legal opinion upholding President Trump’s authority to appoint Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general outside the line of succession, replacing fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Whitaker’s appointment has been sharply criticized by Democrats, but despite the partisan sniping he has shown he has the experience and priorities that an effective attorney general needs.
The former prosecutor and former tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes undoubtedly holds conservative legal views. But more importantly, Whitaker has demonstrated a deep respect for the rule of law throughout his career, and we can expect him to do the same in his current role.
The president’s critics won’t tell you any of this, of course. They’d rather distract you from Whitaker’s qualifications and derail him from serving as acting attorney general by claiming that the president acted unconstitutionally in appointing Whitaker, rather than appointing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to follow that standard order of succession and replace Sessions on an acting basis.
This argument is misguided, as the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel properly concluded Wednesday.
The Office of Legal Counsel said the president is authorized under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to name executive agency employees who have not been confirmed by the Senate to temporary high-level roles within the Justice Department.
If the president’s critics have an issue with the president following this law, they should take it up with the many Democratic and Republican senators and representatives who passed the legislation and the president who signed it: Bill Clinton.
President Trump clearly acted within his legal authority to appoint a well-qualified acting attorney general we can trust to run the Department of Justice effectively and fairly.
Very often, Whitaker’s focus on the rule of law has meant ensuring that the federal government does not infringe upon the rights of its citizens, as he showed as soon as he became Sessions’ chief of staff last year.
Whitaker was the one who took action to settle cases against the Little Sisters’ of the Poor to make sure that, despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, the Catholic nuns would not be forced to facilitate the transaction of birth control bills and drugs or devices used to cause abortions, which run against their deeply held religious beliefs.
Similarly, Whitaker took steps to resolve the case against the owners of craft store Hobby Lobby, which had been compelled by the Obama administration to provide employees with abortion-causing agents and certain types of contraceptives despite their own religious objections.
As these examples show, we can expect Whitaker to continue the important work that Sessions did to protect the religious liberties of the American people.
Whitaker also played an instrumental role in expediting the case that brought justice to Tea Party organizations unfairly targeted by the Internal Revenue Service because of their members’ political beliefs.
These three cases – IRS targeting, Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor – and Whitaker’s irreplaceable role in resolving them demonstrate that the acting attorney general is someone who will fight to win equal justice under the law for all Americans. They also show he will fight to protect our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms from federal encroachment.
Whitaker did the same when he served as legal counsel for the National Rifle Association and the Iowa Firearms Coalition.
Whitaker will also continue the good work Sessions’ did to promote law and order. When he was a U.S. attorney in Iowa during the mid-to-late 2000s, Whitaker prosecuted drug dealers, sex offenders, thieves, violent felons, and other people who posed dangerous threats to our civic peace.
Whitaker also prosecuted a multi-state H1-B visa immigration fraud ring, which shows his respect for the integrity of our immigration system and the security of our borders – priorities in keeping with the agenda of President Trump and his Justice Department.
Finally, Whitaker understands the importance of governmental integrity and transparency. He proved this when he was the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accountability and transparency in government.
At FACT, Whitaker investigated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, in which she used an unsecured server to transmit emails containing classified national security information.
In addition, at FACT Whitaker conducted investigations into the Clinton Foundation during Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state; investigated allegations of the misuse of public resources by former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada; and looked into allegations of campaign finance violations by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
All this shows that Whitaker puts a high priority on ensuring that Americans – and their elected officials – follow the rule of law.
The American people are fortunate to have the highly Whitaker serving as our acting attorney general.