Top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway on Sunday said President Donald Trump has met several times over the last year with Matt Whitaker, contradicting the president’s claim last week that he “didn’t know” the newly appointed acting attorney general.
Trump suggested Friday that he hadn’t met Whitaker, his controversial pick to replace Jeff Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department and a major critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn Friday. “Matt Whitaker worked for Jeff Sessions and he was extremely highly thought of and he still is. But I didn’t know Matt Whitaker.”
But that’s not what Trump told “Fox & Friends” last month.
“I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy,” the president had told the hosts of his favorite cable news program. “I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”
After being shown a clip of Trump’s Whitaker comments on “Fox & Friends,” Conway told “Fox News Sunday” that the president did indeed know Whitaker ― and that he somehow hadn’t meant to suggest otherwise last week.
“The president does know Matt Whitaker, has gotten to know him over the course of the last year since he has been the chief of staff to the attorney general,” Conway told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
“The president’s point is it’s not like he’s putting a friend in there who he’s known for his entire life,” she continued. “He’s putting somebody who has been working at the Department of Justice for 13 months now in a very senior position.”
Trump announced Sessions’ resignation on Wednesday, after more than a year of the president publicly bashing the attorney general over his decision to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s probe.
Democratic lawmakers sharply criticized Whitaker’s appointment to lead the Justice Department, fearing Mueller’s critic could be readying to pull the plug on the Russia investigation.
Whitaker, before becoming Sessions’ chief of staff in September 2017, had suggested the Mueller probe could be a “witch hunt” and declared that there was no collusion between Trump and Russia during the election.
“I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general does not fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said in a July 2017 interview with CNN.
When asked if Trump knew of Whitaker’s opposition to the Russia probe before appointing him acting attorney general, Conway told Wallace that she wasn’t sure.
“I’m not aware of that because it’s not even clear to me that Mr. Whitaker has been briefed on the Mueller investigation,” Conway said. “He has been the chief of staff to a recused attorney general.”
Wallace continued to press Conway, asking how Whitaker could “fairly oversee” the Mueller investigation given his prior comments. But Conway downplayed the acting attorney general’s past criticism of the investigation.
“We are so far past the period in which those comments were made by Matt Whitaker as a private citizen,” said Conway, adding that the White House has been “nothing but compliant” with the special counsel’s team.
“The president has said he has not discussed the Mueller investigation with Whitaker,” she continued. “I’ve never been witness to them discussing it. And I’ll go a little bit farther, it would be a mistake to try to shut down the Mueller investigation, in the way that you describe it, because we’ve been so compliant.”