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State Attorneys General Want Whitaker To Recuse Himself From Mueller Probe

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Leading Democrats are calling on President Trump's acting attorney general to do the very thing that may have gotten his predecessor fired. They want Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 election and possible collusion from inside the Trump campaign. Whitaker has been a vocal supporter of President Trump's, and he has publicly criticized the Mueller probe. Here's Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over the weekend talking on CNN's "State Of The Union."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

CHUCK SCHUMER: The appointment of Mr. Whitaker should concern every American. If he stays there, he will create a constitutional crisis by inhibiting Mueller or firing Mueller.

MARTIN: Also calling on Whitaker to recuse himself are 19 state attorneys general led by Maura Healey. She is the attorney general of the state of Massachusetts, and she joins us now on the line. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAURA HEALEY: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: What's the argument you and other state attorneys general are making here?

HEALEY: Well, there are all sorts of problems with this appointment, and many of them have been already recounted in the media - legal and constitutional and otherwise. But we are speaking out on a separate point, which is that - as prosecutors. You know, as prosecutors, we are governed by ethical rules that are there to protect the integrity and the impartiality of investigations. Department of Justice has rules. Every prosecutor's office has rules. And Whitaker's conduct is so far over the line that he should recuse himself.

And that's why we're speaking up, because this is not a partisan issue, Rachel. This is a matter of the rule of law and the system that we have in place to ensure that we have an operating rule of law in this country, which is so fundamental to democracy. And if the rule of law means anything, it means that the president can't shut down a criminal investigation by removing and replacing the prosecutor.

MARTIN: Well, a couple of things to follow up on. First, you say that this is not about partisanship, although we should note that all the signatories to this letter are Democrats. So a lot of people are going to see this as a partisan political attack.

HEALEY: Well, I can't control who signed. We welcomed and asked all attorneys general across the country to sign. We were doing this quickly because we wanted to make sure that the voice of a prosecutor's office was heard. We weren't sure what was going to happen in the coming hours or even days. I hope that more will join. I think you see more people speaking up around this country and growing consensus. But when I say this is not a partisan issue, this is not something that should be political. The Department of Justice is there not for the benefit of the president but there for the benefit of the American people. And...

MARTIN: Did you get any responses? I'm sorry to interrupt you. Just for the sake of time, did you get any responses from Republican state attorneys general?

HEALEY: No, we haven't as of yet. But again, my hope is that more will join on because it's just so important. You know, you really need to have an attorney general who can - who the American people can trust and rely on. And with Whitaker's appointment, we clearly don't have that. My...

MARTIN: You say it's about his behavior. What exactly can you point to? Because he is in a tough position of having to prove a negative - persuading you and other critics of the president of what he will not do.

HEALEY: Well, I think he's been quite vocal about his positions on the Mueller investigation from starving its budget to shutting it down. And in our world, that sure sounds like obstruction to just - obstruction of justice to many of us as a matter of prosecutorial ethics, and that's what we are speaking to as prosecutors. There are prosecutorial ethics - rules that are in place, including the department's own rules and regulations, that really prohibit this kind of conduct and certainly prohibit anyone who's made those kinds of statements from serving on an investigation. So that's what we're speaking to as prosecutors. And again, it's really important if you're talking about preserving the integrity of an investigation.

MARTIN: Have you heard any response to your letter?

HEALEY: No, we haven't. But I think what you have seen is a growing consensus out there that the Whitaker appointment is illegal, it's unethical and it undermines the rule of law. And that's why so many people are speaking up. That's why you saw the immediate protests. This is a serious problem. If somebody's been appointed to shut down an investigation of one's self or one's family, that is a serious problem. Nobody's above the rule of law in this country, including the president the United States.

MARTIN: Although we haven't yet heard - we may, but we haven't yet heard whether or not Whitaker has decided to recuse or whether the DOJ ethics department will advise him of that. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, thank you so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

HEALEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.