Viewers of President Donald Trump’s favorite cable news network were in for a surprise on Wednesday morning. A Republican group aired what amounted to a negative Trump commercial — one that urged viewers to demand that the president’s openly anti-Mueller attorney general recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
“We need an attorney general who doesn’t play politics,” the ad’s narrator says, urging viewers to call their members of Congress and “tell them that [acting attorney general Matthew] Whitaker must recuse himself from the Mueller investigation.”
Republicans for the Rule of Law, a political nonprofit, paid for the ad to run in Washington, DC, and New York City during Fox & Friends — a show the president regularly live-tweets.
Trump’s decision to install Whitaker as the head of the Department of Justice presents an unusual moment where some Republicans are breaking off from the president, fearing that his decision to appoint an anti-Mueller partisan to oversee Mueller sets the stage for a constitutional crisis.
“Obviously [Whitaker’s] there because he’s a political ally of the president, not because he’s qualified,” said Sarah Longwell, director of Republicans for the Rule of Law. Her group hopes to persuade Trump supporters that this is a special case, that “firing Mueller or Rosenstein would put us in that constitutional crisis area that would hurt the Republican Party.”
A loyalist runs the Justice Department
Trump made no secret that his antipathy to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was rooted in Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — a move that ultimately resulted in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointing Mueller as special counsel.
The ad that Republicans for the Rule of Law ran on Fox & Friends highlights comments Whitaker made during TV appearances before his stratospheric rise to the top of the DOJ, such as “the appointment of Bob Mueller I don’t think was necessary or appropriate” and “what I see is a president that is starting to figure out that if I want to I can terminate you … legally there is certainly a way for that to happen.”
Perhaps the most prominent member of the group, Bill Kristol, shared video of the ad on Twitter.
Whitaker thus far has given no indications that he plans to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation. Trump reportedly became a fan of his thanks to TV appearances where Whitaker suggested Mueller’s work could be brought to an end by slashing his budget, and characterized his appointment as “ridiculous” and “a little fishy.”
While a handful of Republican members of Congress have said they would support legislation to protect Mueller, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last Friday and again on Wednesday that he doesn’t think it’s necessary, because “the Mueller investigation is not under threat.”
“The president said repeatedly that he’s not going to dismiss the Mueller investigation. He’s said repeatedly it’s going to be allowed to finish,” McConnell said, ignoring that Trump seems to have no reason for appointing Whitaker to replace Sessions beyond his hostility to Mueller.
A direct plea
Longwell said that beyond trying to reach persuadable conservatives, Republicans for the Rule of Law hopes the Fox & Friends ad will ultimately be seen by politicians and government officials.
“Part of the reason we chose DC is that we would like not just the president to see it, but all the folks at DOJ who are following [Whitaker’s appointment] closely, because the overwhelming response from most conservatives and Democrats is that his appointment is a mistake,” she said.
Even McConnell has alluded to concerns about Whitaker’s qualifications. Speaking to reporters last week, the majority leader said he believes Whitaker will be a “very interim AG.”
“I expect we’ll get a new nominee quickly for the job,” he added.
But whether a new attorney general will be nominated before Whitaker does damage to Mueller’s investigation remains to be seen.
Other conservatives are starting to make noise
Republicans for the Rule of Law is not the only group of conservatives mobilizing against the president’s efforts to politicize the DOJ. On Wednesday, the New York Times profiled a new group organized by George Conway — husband of White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway — called Checks and Balances.
“We believe in the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights and the necessity of civil discourse,” the group said in a statement. “We believe these principles apply regardless of the party or persons in power.”
The Times reports that the group is meant to “encourage debate about some of the Trump administration’s policies and actions” among legal organizations that usually support him, like the Federalist Society.
Despite his wife’s central role in the administration, Conway has emerged as an outspoken critic of Trump — especially on Twitter.
Conway has also been critical of Trump’s decision to appoint Whitaker. Asked about Conway’s criticisms during a question-and-answer session with reporters last week, Trump dismissed him as a selfish attention-seeker.
“He’s just trying to get publicity for himself,” Trump said.