Matt Whitaker, Iowa attorney and ex-Hawkeye starter, seen as Trump favorite for key posts
Iowan Matt Whitaker is well liked by President Donald Trump and could be headed for the No. 2 post in the Justice Department or a key job in the White House, according to the New York Times.
Whitaker is a former U.S. district attorney in Des Moines and was the starting tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 1991 Rose Bowl.
The Times reported Wednesday that Whitaker had been in line to become acting deputy attorney general to replace Rod Rosenstein until those plans were dropped on Monday because Rosenstein was no longer committed to resigning.
Trump told reporters Wednesday he was open to keeping Rosenstein in place, and two White House officials said they believed he was likely to remain in his job at least through the mid-term elections, the newspaper said.
Rosenstein has incurred Trump’s wrath because he appointed a special counsel for the Russia investigation. Because of complex department rules, Whitaker would not assume control of the inquiry if he ever replaces Rosenstein, the Times said.
The Times said Whitaker has also been mentioned as a possible successor to Donald McGahn II, the White House counsel who plans to leave in the fall.
Deep Iowa, football history
Whitaker, 48, who grew up in Ankeny, has been involved in conservative politics for years and has been chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions since October 2017.
He's a Republican who unsuccessfully ran in Iowa for state treasurer in 2002, losing to incumbent Democrat Michael Fitzgerald; and for the U.S. Senate in 2014 in a campaign ultimately won by Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.
Between 2004 and 2009, Whitaker was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. He's also been a private practice lawyer in Minnesota and Iowa, and a corporate counsel for SuperValu.
Whitaker graduated from Ankeny High School, where his football achievements resulted in his induction in the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame. At the University of Iowa, he played football for Coach Hayden Fry and remains well known among many Iowa football fans.
In fact, his first TV advertisement in his failed U.S. Senate campaign tried to capitalize on his ties to the Hawkeye football team.
Coach Fry "taught us to always fight for Iowa," Whitaker said in the ad. "As your U.S. attorney, I protected Iowans, putting thugs and predators behind bars and as your senator, when it comes to standing up to Barack Obama, I won't waver. ... You can trust me to fight for Iowa."
The New York Times story said a White House aide described Whitaker as a "balm" on the relationship between Trump and the Justice Department. He has frequently visited the Oval office and is said to have an easy chemistry with Trump, the newspaper said. On Monday, Trump himself called Whitaker, not with an explicit job offer, but with a reassurance that he has faith in him, the Times said.
According to two White House officials, Trump has taken a liking to Whitaker, who has a sort of commanding bearing that the president likes, the newspaper said.
Whitaker was a top scholar at the University of Iowa. He graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree in communications, starting his first year of law school during his senior year as a football player, which was considered an extraordinarily difficult task. Besides a law degree, he has a masters in business administration.
Whitaker has been well respected within the Republican Party and in conservative political circles. He was state co-chairman of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2012 Iowa campaign for president after heading former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's failed presidential bid in Iowa.
Between 2014 and 2017, Whitaker was executive director of a conservative watchdog group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, based in Washington, D.C. He was also a legal commentator on CNN for four months in 2017 before joining the Justice Department.
During his U.S. Senate campaign, Whitaker said two centerpieces of his agenda were standing up for economic freedom and individual liberties.
"I believe in what Ronald Reagan said, and that is: As government expands, liberty contracts," Whitaker told the Des Moines Register's editorial board in April 2014.
Whitaker pledged that if elected to the Senate, he would push for a constitutionally limited federal government. If something isn't authorized in the U.S. Constitution, it's reserved for the states to decide, he said. He believes in modest taxes, reasonable regulations, free trade, a stable currency and protection of private property rights, he said.
Whitaker has described himself as "100 percent pro life," as an opponent of "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, and a supporter of Medicare reform and a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In a November 2017 interview with the Register, Whitaker described the work environment at the Justice Department as professional. He added that there were "bright lines" about what everyone could and couldn't talk about.
Whitaker also talked wistfully of his life in Iowa, saying he had hardly seen the Hawkeyes play since he had arrived in Washington a month earlier. He recalled he had previously been doing a weekly radio show about Hawkeye football and those days were over. "But my time in Washington is pretty cool," he added.