11.13.18

[VIDEO] Sen. Coons: “Matt Whitaker strikes me as a clear and present danger to the independence of the Special Counsel”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined Kasie Hunt on MSNBC’s Kasie DC to discuss his legislation to protect the Special Counsel.

“This is a balanced, bipartisan bill, and I respect that the Majority Leader has said in the past that the Mueller investigation should not be interfered with, but I don't understand on what basis he thinks President Trump who continues as recently as last week to criticize and question and challenge the Mueller investigation can be trusted to stay hands off. I think it is the role of the Senate to step forward in a moment like this and ensure that we don't have a constitutional crisis that is so obviously avoidable with legislation that's bipartisan and ready for action,” said Senator Coons. 

Video and audio available here.

Sen. Coons on the Special Counsel bill: Well this is a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee back in April by a strong bipartisan margin of 14 to 7. My co-sponsors on the Republican side, Senators Graham and Tillis, and my co-sponsor on the Democratic side, Senator Booker, have all urged this not just to protect this Special Counsel, but future Special Counsels to make sure that it is clear in law that you can't abruptly and for no good reason fire the Special Counsel. As you mentioned in the lead in Kasie, we are hoping the Special Counsel is concluding his investigation, preparing his report, but we don't know that. And Matt Whitaker strikes me as a clear and present danger to the independence of the Special Counsel, given things he has said a year ago when he was a CNN commentator and given some of his unusual legal theories. Kasie I expect there's going to be challenges to Matthew Whitaker's appointment, legal challenges. There was a letter sent by a wide range of leading Democrats to the DOJ Ethics Counsel asking for a ruling on whether or not he should recuse himself. But as we wait for those two things to develop, Senator Flake and I will be going to the floor this week and asking for a live unanimous consent on the bill that is ready for action at any time.

Sen. Coons on the constitutionality of Whitaker's appointment: I have real doubts about that. The Appointments Clause, which is Article II Section II Clause II of our Constitution, strongly suggests that in something like the principal officer, the Attorney General of the United States, it has to be Senate confirmed. That may have to be tested in a lawsuit. We'll see. But a number of legal scholars, both conservative and liberal, have said this is a highly questionable appointment. As you know Kasie, the President didn't follow the Department of Justice succession statute that would have made Rod Rosenstein the Senate confirmed Deputy Attorney General the acting Attorney General. That would have been the wiser course of action here.

More on Whitaker: Well that audio clip was very muddy on my side Kasie, but I'll take it that Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, isn't saying this is a crisis yet -- Look my expectation is that President Trump may move fairly quickly to nominate a new Attorney General and that person will come in front of the Judiciary Committee. But it could be weeks or even months before that confirmation happens. And in the meantime, I do think Matthew Whitaker, the acting AG, should recuse himself given his past statements. I'm somewhat encouraged if Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, has made a comment that you just played that suggests he's not alarmed. But frankly the test here is whether Matthew Whitaker is someone whose legal ideas and whose relevant experience makes him an appropriate person to serve as acting Attorney General. And there have been a number of press accounts of things that Matthew Whitaker said when he was a candidate in Iowa -- he ran for the Senate previously in Iowa unsuccessfully-- that were really way outside the legal mainstream of the United States, suggesting that he supports some really very obscure legal theories about constitutional order and the role of states in nullifying decisions by the Supreme Court. 

More on protecting the Special Counsel: It's possible as a number of leaders have said today on television and over the past week. Jerry Nadler who is likely the next Judiciary Committee Chair in the House and there was a passing comment from Senator Schumer, the Minority Leader, earlier today. We do have an end of year spending bill that will come up on December 7. It's entirely possible for us to insert into that bill a piece of legislation like the Special Counsel Integrity and Independence Act that I've co-sponsored, or another provision that would provide that the Special Counsel's report would need to be provided to the critical committees of Congress. It is the spending power of Congress that is in some ways our most important, and that's one of a number of vehicles we could use to try to ensure that Special Counsel Mueller's important work isn't simply buried or lost if there is some action against his investigation by Matt Whitaker.

More on protecting the Special Counsel: Well we're not there yet Kasie. I think what Jeff Flake and I are going to be doing this week is trying to put on the floor of the Senate a bill that's ready for action to say why even flirt with the idea of a government shutdown. This is a balanced, bipartisan bill, and I respect that the Majority Leader has said in the past that the Mueller investigation should not be interfered with, but I don't understand on what basis he thinks President Trump who continues as recently as last week to criticize and question and challenge the Mueller investigation can be trusted to stay hands off. I think it is the role of the Senate to step forward in a moment like this and ensure that we don't have a constitutional crisis that is so obviously avoidable with legislation that's bipartisan and ready for action. 

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Press Contact

Sean Coit at 202-224-5042 or Sean_Coit@coons.senate.gov