Matthew Whitaker is, by any standard, a wildly unsuitable choice to serve as attorney general of the United States.
He’s a small-time crook who finished fourth in the Iowa GOP Senate primary back in 2014. He apparently got his job as chief of staff in the Justice Department because Trump liked his TV hits, experience that would at best qualify him to be the DOJ’s chief spokesperson, not to be chief of staff and certainly not to run the Justice Department. Meanwhile, Kellyanne Conway’s husband, a prominent Washington attorney, says Whitaker’s appointment is illegal.
The point, however, is that in a normal administration, the question of legality would simply never arise here. The Justice Department is full of competent, professional, Senate-confirmed officials who would be more suitable than Whitaker on both substance and procedural grounds.
It’s commonplace in liberal circles to see Whitaker as an inappropriate selection in light of his previous comments about Robert Mueller’s investigation, but the truth is the Mueller issue is his only conceivable qualification for the job. Trump’s problem with the senior staff at the Justice Department is he has no way of knowing whether they share with Jeff Sessions and Ron Rosenstein a reluctance to fatally compromise the rule of law in pursuit of Trump's personal self-interest.
With Whitaker, he’s sure, and that’s good enough for him.
Republicans are paying a heavy Trump tax
Ezra Klein has written of the “Trump tax” Republicans are paying in electoral terms.
It’s simply hard to believe that candidates like Dean Heller, Mia Love, Steve Russell, Dave Brat, and Karen Handel would have lost their seats as incumbents running with a strong economy at their backs unless there were a vicious, unpopular clown in the White House.
The Whitaker situation is along those lines, in the sense that “president fires the attorney general in order to replace him with someone unqualified for corrupt reasons” is a bad news cycle for the GOP, but realistically, voters will have moved on from this long before there’s another election. There is, instead, a different and more profound Trump tax at work here on the policymaking level.
Parties usually like to hold the presidency in order to accomplish things in government, and that “accomplishing things” is done by Cabinet secretaries and the heads of other executive departments. It’s precisely because Trump is a Republican rather than a Democrat and, thus, has appointed Republicans who agree with Republican Party policy to run these agencies. But by definition, any Republican president would do that. The Trump tax is that from time to time, Trump feels impelled to install a nincompoop like Whitaker in an important job to help cover up his own corruption, or because Trump, personally, is corrupt, it encourages other appointees like Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, and Ryan Zinke to think less about the GOP policy agenda and more about their personal agenda.
None of this is exactly a win for Democrats, either, but that just goes to show that politics is not a zero-sum game — having a bad president in office is just bad, because he makes decisions for bad reasons that put bad people in other jobs.
The ship could turn, but it won’t
Trump has been president for nearly two years now, so we know that Mitch McConnell isn’t going to walk over to the White House with a dozen senators across different factions of the party and demand that Trump swiftly nominate a permanent AG from a very short list of well-qualified candidates.
Attempting to muscle Trump could, of course, prompt Trump to blow up on Twitter and assail his own party, which might force Republicans to consider whether his blatant, ongoing efforts to obstruct the rule of law combined with his complete refusal to conduct his business affairs in a remotely acceptable manner aren’t impeachable offenses after all. Then Mike Pence would be president, liberal Democrats would still be mad because Mike Pence is a conservative Republican, and Republicans would have the field clear to give their best shot at some semblance of competent, honest conservative government.
It might be a disaster for them or it might work out, but realistically, of course, we’re not going to find out.
Republicans are paying the Trump tax at the polls, they’re paying it on policy, but most of all, they’re paying it in their own heads, where they’ve somehow convinced themselves — against all evidence — that things are going well.