Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker will consult with ethics officials about whether his past criticism of a special investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election requires him to recuse himself, the Justice Department said.
Whitaker "is fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures at the Department of Justice, including consulting with senior ethics officials on his oversight responsibilities and matters that may warrant recusal," department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said late on November 12.
President Donald Trump named Whitaker acting attorney general last week after ousting Jeff Sessions, who Trump had criticized repeatedly for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, which Trump has labeled a "witch hunt."
After Sessions stepped aside last year, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took over oversight of the department's investigation into ties between Russia and Trump's campaign. He appointed Robert Mueller to be special counsel in May 2017.
The investigation since then has produced criminal charges against dozens of people, including Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn.
With the appointment of Whitaker, Sessions' former chief of staff, to head the department, Rosenstein is no longer in charge of the Russia probe.
Democrats in Congress have said they fear Whitaker will undermine or even fire Mueller after he expressed negative opinions about the probe before joining the department in October 2017.
In an interview with CNN in July 2017, Whitaker suggested the Mueller probe could be starved of resources by cutting its funding "so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt."
Also, in a radio interview last year, Whitaker maintained there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
In light of these comments, top Democrats in Congress have called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation and are pushing for Congress to enact a bill to protect Mueller from being fired before the end of the year.
Democrats have also raised questions about whether Whitaker's appointment was legal under the U.S. Constitution. They accuse Trump of ignoring a statutory line of succession that they say should have made Rosenstein the acting head of the department, while depriving senators of their constitutional "advice and consent" role over major appointments.
The Wall Street Journal reported on November 12 that the Justice Department expects to publish a legal opinion supporting Whitaker's appointment.