US Attorney General Jeff Sessions looks on during a press conference regarding the arrest of bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc in Florida, at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC on October 26, 2018. - The suspect has been charged with five federal crimes in connection with more than a dozen suspicious packages sent in a US mail bombing spree, Sessions said. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Jeff Sessions out as attorney general
03:18 - Source: CNN

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Whitaker was campaign chairman for Sam Clovis, a Mueller probe witness

Whitaker and Clovis are both rooted in Iowa politics

Washingto CNN  — 

New Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, whose appointment means he will supervise special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, has a personal tie to one of the witnesses in the probe: Whitaker was the campaign chairman for Sam Clovis in 2014 when Clovis ran for state treasurer in Iowa.

Clovis, the 2016 Trump campaign national co-chairman, said in a May radio interview that he has been interviewed by the special counsel’s team and had testified before the Mueller grand jury.

Clovis was also listed an unnamed “campaign supervisor” in the indictment of former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, according to The Washington Post.

Both Whitaker and Clovis are rooted in Iowa politics, and both ran for the 2014 Republican Senate nomination. A 2014 press release announcing Whitaker’s hiring said the pair became “great friends” during Clovis’ US Senate bid that preceded his run for state treasurer.

It was Clovis, no stranger to TV and radio himself, who encouraged Whitaker to get a regular commentary gig on cable television to get President Donald Trump’s attention, according to friends who Whitaker told at the time. Whitaker was hired as a CNN legal commentator last year for several months, before leaving the role in September 2017 to head to the Justice Department as chief of staff to now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Through his CNN role, where he was deeply critical of the Mueller probe, Whitaker got to know Trump, who saw him on TV and later met in person.

Democrats have slammed Whitaker’s appointment to replace Sessions, arguing that Trump is trying to undermine Mueller and demanding that Whitaker recuse himself from supervising the Mueller investigation due to his writings and public comments attacking the investigation.

A personal connection to a Mueller witness is unlikely to sway Whitaker or the White House when it comes to recusal, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein supervised the probe despite being a witness himself.

Whitaker was a fixture in Iowa conservative politics for years, but he remained on the outside edges, never able to win a race. He lost a bid for Iowa state treasurer in 2002 and the GOP Senate primary race in 2014 to now-GOP Sen. Joni Ernst.

“He’s political to his core,” a friend said of Whitaker.

Several GOP officials in Iowa who have known Whitaker for a long time say they were surprised by his shift in the Trump era. He was a George W. Bush loyalist – named a former US attorney in Iowa under Bush – but like many others, he has become a big admirer of Trump along the way.

“He worships him,” a longtime friend said of Whitaker and Trump.