Thursday’s confirmation of William Barr as the next attorney general has forced a question that’s left many in Washington stumped: where will Matt Whitaker go?
Whitaker, a former US attorney who took over the Justice Department as acting attorney general last year after Jeff Sessions was ousted by President Donald Trump, can boast a heightened profile and distinctive experience at the highest level of government on any new cover letters.
But after a tenure weighed down by headlines about his questionable business history and criticism of his competency, his options in the nation’s capital may be limited.
Whitaker’s appointment last year was met by immediate challenges from Democrats, who called his move from Sessions’ chief of staff to acting attorney general unconstitutional, and worried out loud that Trump was installing a lackey to keep him appraised of updates in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
That reputation was not dispelled in an hearing before the House Judiciary Committee last week, where Whitaker obfuscated about the extent of information he’s shared with the President, and fed into conspiracy theories about leaks to the media coming from the special counsel team.
He also pointedly refused to say that Mueller’s investigation was not a witch hunt – a favorite insult of the President’s that Barr, and other Trump law enforcement officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have publicly disavowed.
Trump is said to be a fan of Whitaker’s and a number of Republicans inside and outside of the White House have speculated that there could eventually be an opening for him there, potentially in the chief of staff’s office.
“As acting attorney general, Matt had to navigate some pretty treacherous waters and he really was able to do that quite well,” said Ian Prior, the former deputy director of public affairs at the Justice Department under Sessions. “I think his ability to handle that experience did not go unnoticed by the President and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matt continue to serve the administration in some role.”
The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.
While a new role in the West Wing could enable Whitaker to cite executive privilege over future conversations he has with Trump, it would not shield him from being brought back to Capitol Hill to clarify his testimony, as House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, has requested.
Late last month, Barr told senators that he has had “preliminary discussions” with Whitaker “to explore possible positions both inside and outside of the Department where he may best be able to continue to serve his country,” but that “no decisions have been made.”
On Monday, Whitaker appeared to update that, joking to a national gathering of sheriffs in Washington that his prospects were still unclear.
Told by the group’s chief that he was to be given a token in recognition of his work, Whitaker responded: “Good, is it a new job?”
Given his relationship with lawmakers, a new gig for Whitaker requiring Senate confirmation seems unlikely, though his management credentials and political clout will keep the door open for a move elsewhere in the Trump administration.
Of course, Washington is also a town full of “formers,” and job opportunities abound for those with a legal degree at law firms and consulting shops.
“He’s a very good lawyer, he’s had experience in a variety of fields, he’s done a good job as acting attorney general even though it’s a relatively short time,” said Ed Meese, the former Reagan administration attorney general.
“I would think any law firm that isn’t strongly Democrat and firms that are not particularly political in their affiliation would be happy to have a lawyer like that,” Meese said.
While one Republican with ties to K Street and the White House argued that Whitaker was too “radioactive” for a high-paying corporate job, another pointed towards Ryan Zinke, the former Interior secretary who resigned last year amid scandal, and the news Wednesday that he was joining a DC-based, Trump-aligned, lobbying firm.
“I think there’s been that kind of speculation before when a controversial member of the administration departs, but the reality is there is a large Trump-world – whether PACs, public affairs firms or lobbying shops — they can call home,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and CNN political commentator.
Whitaker also has experience in TV punditry – he first landed on the President’s radar with his appearances on CNN where he critiqued the Mueller probe before joining the Justice Department – and could fill a void for news networks hungry for insight into the administration.
Or he could return to his home state of Iowa, where he built a fan base from his college football days and an unsuccessful statewide campaign for office. Whitaker’s wife and kids still live there, and he counts among his inner circle top Republicans in both of the state’s legislative chambers.
In the meantime, before Whitaker’s next step is announced, there’s always the possibility that he stays on at the Justice Department to help with the transition in of his successor.
It would not be unheard of to create a temporary counsel position that he could fill, and Whitaker may not even have to box up his office.
For his three-month run as the acting head of the DOJ, he remained in his chief of staff office, leaving the attorney general’s office ready for Barr to move straight in.
CNN’s Laura Jarrett, Pamela Brown and Ariane De Vogue