President Donald Trump asked then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker if a US attorney he appointed could oversee an investigation tied to himself after the US attorney in question had already recused himself from the probe, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
The Times report cited several US officials with direct knowledge of the call that the paper said occurred late last year.
Trump tapped Whitaker to lead the Justice Department in November after he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump regularly slammed for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
Trump soured on Whitaker as well, according to Times, which said it was “unclear” what Whitaker did after the call. The Times said there was no evidence Whitaker took steps to intervene in the investigation Trump asked about, although the report said he told Justice Department associates that the prosecutors needed “adult supervision.”
CNN reported in December that Trump had lashed out at Whitaker on at least two occasions, angered by federal prosecutors who referenced Trump in crimes to which his former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty. The first instance came after Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow, and the second came after prosecutors implicated Trump in a hush-money scheme to silence women.
Trump later denied the CNN report in a tweet saying he had “great respect” for Whitaker.
Attorney General William Barr was confirmed last week to take over the department permanently.
Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said Whitaker told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month 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,” she said. When pressed directly by House Judiciary Committee members about any conversations with the President about the southern district of New York investigation Whitaker refused to answer.
Trump on Tuesday denied a question from a reporter about whether he asked Whitaker about a recusal matter in the case.
“No, I don’t know who gave you that,” Trump said.
Trump went on to praise Whitaker as “a very, very straight shooter” and said he had “a lot of respect” for him.
The President also praised Whitaker’s performance during the House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, calling it “exceptional.”
“He should be given a lot of thanks from our nation,” Trump said. On Wednesday, he kept up his attacks on The New York Times and its report, calling it “false.”
The investigation Trump called Whitaker about is led by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, a Manhattan-based team that has prosecuted Cohen. After a showdown early in his White House tenure, Trump fired the head of that office.
Preet Bharara, the former US attorney who is now a CNN contributor, later said he felt if he had stayed on the job, Trump would have asked him “to do something inappropriate.”
Trump’s then-Attorney General Sessions went on to appoint Geoffrey Berman, a former law partner of Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, to lead the high-profile office. CNN reported after the federal raid on Cohen last year that Berman had been recused from the probe.
CNN’s Jessica Schneider, Betsy Klein, Laura Jarrett and Pamela Brown contributed to this report.