Donald Trump’s new acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker ran for statewide office twice in Iowa, and lost badly both times. After the second defeat — he finished fourth in a 2014 GOP Senate primary — a group of conservative lawyers in Washington, D.C., approached with him with an idea. According to a GOP operative familiar with the discussion, the group recruited Whitaker into an effort to start a conservative counterpoint to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. For years, CREW had bedeviled the right with its crusades for good governance and its annual list of the most corrupt members of Congress. The Republican legal world saw the outfit as little more than a partisan operation masquerading as a government-accountability project, and they wanted their own version.
Whitaker, a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, took the job, dividing his time between Des Moines, where he was a partner in one of the leading Republican law firms in the state, and this new group, named Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, in Washington. Its fundraising was mysterious — almost all of its money came from Donors Trust, an organization set up to shield conservative donors’ identities when they gave to a network of right-wing political organizations. Whitaker, according to tax documents, was paid more than $400,000 for his work for the group in 2016.
Whitaker was unknown to most political and media types in Washington, and so set about meeting journalists and trying to get the group’s work recognized. Prior to the presidential election, he promised the press corps tantalizing tidbits to come about Clinton’s nefarious doings.
But the group never earned much respect in political circles in Washington, D.C.
“It was one of the hackier things I ever saw,” said one GOP operative involved in some of the early efforts of the new group. “If you wanted to be treated seriously you have to do serious work. The whole thing just became a chop shop of fake ethics complaints.”
Although the group took on the occasional back-bench Republican, it mostly became a repository of ethics complaints lodged against Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and her presidential campaign. The group wrote to Eric Holder urging him to investigate Sidney Blumenthal for violation the Federal Agents Registration Act since Clinton’s emails revealed that he would email her while she was overseas. Whitaker wrote to the president of Harvard University demanding the school release minutes and transcripts of a 1973 meeting in which Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was alleged to have pushed for a campus-wide ROTC ban. “Failure to disclose would leave the American people with the inescapable conclusion that Garland has something to hide,” Whitaker. He regularly filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission or the Office of Government Ethics about Clinton, although the regulatory agencies never did much with the complaints.
Clinton campaign operatives though said that in the universe of right-wing opposition research firms, FACT was one that barely registered notice.
“There were a lot of groups out there that drew blood. It was bullshit, but they drew blood,” said one former Clinton aide. “All I mostly knew about these guys was that they were a couple of partisan hacks who considered themselves watchdogs.”
FACT landed what was probably its biggest hit when it submitted research to the FEC that detailed how Catalist, a progressive data and technology vendor founded by Clinton friend Harold Ickes was coordinating between outside groups in violation of federal law. The story received play in right-wing media, but the FEC took no action in the complaint.
On FACT’s website, news releases about the group’s initiatives often feature Whitaker’s headshot — a practice that has not been taken up by the group’s new head, Kendra Arnold, a Whitaker protégé.
If the group didn’t have much of an effect on Washington politics, it did however elevate Whitaker’s career. He used his perch to become a semi-regular on CNN, eventually becoming a paid contributor. On the network, his regular defense of Donald Trump and his castigation of the Mueller investigation caught the eye of the president, and last year Whitaker became the chief of staff of former attorney general Jeff Sessions, where according to the Times, he was regarded as the White House’s “eyes and ears” inside the Justice Department.
People in Iowa political circles say that it is not that surprising that Whitaker became a favorite of the president, that he had a politician’s glad-handing way of making people like him, and that he often wanted to talk about more than politics. But while many Democrats and some Republicans fear that he has been installed in the job just to protect Trump from Mueller, friends back home say they do not recognize the caricature that is being painted of him.
“We don’t know the Matt Whitaker that MSNBC is painting of him,” said Bill Gustoff, a former law partner of Whitaker’s who serves on the board of directors of FACT. “Matt is a man of very high integrity, and an excellent attorney. I have always known him to be fair.”
In the relatively small world of Iowa politics, Whitaker was something of a player, someone who presidential candidates would court in the process of building support for the Iowa caucuses. He wasn’t an early supporter of President Trump’s, but told people that he thought Trump would win.
“Once his Senate race was over, the next thing I knew was that Whitaker was a guy with a regular cable news presence,” said Craig Robinson, a close political observer in the Hawkeye State and the editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican website. “You always notice when something like that happens to someone from Iowa. Usually they go up the ranks bit by bit and get there but sometimes you can’t explain it. It’s who you know, I guess.”