The shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation is complicating President Donald Trump’s search for a new attorney general.
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta has told associates he is unlikely to accept the job if it is offered before Mueller issues his report, according to two sources familiar with the ongoing conversations. And two other candidates approached by the White House about the position signaled they were not interested in the job.
Story Continued Below
As a result, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has emerged as a strong contender, according to two former White House officials briefed on the ongoing discussions, one of whom predicted that “this is going to end up with Christie.” The president has said in recent days that he believes Christie, the first prominent Republican to back his presidential bid, has patiently waited his turn after being passed over for the job during the post-2016 election transition.
That said, candidates for top Trump administration jobs have learned that Trump’s whims are subject to sudden changes, thanks to anything from a bad-chemistry meeting to a snippet of critical cable TV commentary the president happens to catch. Other candidates are in the mix, including Solicitor General Noel Francisco. And several sources said that Trump is in no particular hurry to fill his top law enforcement position.
The post opened on Wednesday when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions submitted his resignation at the president’s request. Trump has appointed Sessions’ chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, to take the job on an acting basis. Whoever replaces Sessions permanently will inherit oversight of Mueller’s probe into 2016 Russian election interference, if it is still ongoing. Trump has called the investigation a “witch hunt” and indicated he wants an attorney general who will carry out his wishes as it relates to the investigation, while Democrats say he has sought to obstruct by pressuring senior Justice Department officials.
A cabinet post for Christie would be a dramatic plot twist in his complicated, years-long relationship with the Trump family. Christie ran against Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries before advising and representing his campaign. As a U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Christie led a 2004 criminal prosecution that landed Jared Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, behind bars for tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions — and earned him the enmity of Trump’s son-in-law.
But Christie was at the White House on Thursday for a long-scheduled meeting on criminal justice reform, an issue both he and Kushner support. White House officials said Thursday that Kushner’s ambition to make progress on the cause could incentivize him to set aside his anger. Christie, for his part, has been “trying to mend some fences” with Kushner and first daughter Ivanka Trump, according to a former White House official.
“That stuff is ancient history,” Christie said in a March 2017 interview, insisting that he and Kushner “get along just great.” One person who attended a White House holiday party last year recalled seeing Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, chatting amiably with Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
Whatever bitterness remains between the two, it’s unlikely Kushner has the power to kneecap Christie’s candidacy if he wanted to do so. Trump associates predict the president will do as he likes, and doubt that Kushner wants to get deeply involved in a job appointment that Mueller, who is said to be considering whether Trump has sought to obstruct his probe, may scrutinize.
Christie arrived in Washington Thursday morning after boarding a 6:15 am Amtrak Acela train from Newark, N.J. He disembarked in conversation with the former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo.
Christie’s prospects of becoming the next attorney general have brightened as less controversial candidates have begged off, in part due to Trump’s handling of the Mueller probe.
At one time, a possible successor to Sessions was the Justice Department’s third-ranking official, Rachel Brand. But she left her post for the private sector in February — reportedly in part to avoid the prospect of overseeing the politically explosive Mueller investigation. Brand would have been put in charge of the probe if the president had fired Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who became Mueller’s supervisor after Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe early last year.
As Attorney General, Christie himself could face calls to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, given his prominent role in Trump’s 2016 campaign. At a March 2017 press conference explaining his recusal, Sessions said that Justice Department lawyers “said that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.” (Sessions had also come under fire for not fully disclosing 2016 contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington.)
During Sessions’ tenure, which came to an abrupt end on Wednesday, Trump fumed at him both in public and in private for his recusal, and told advisers on countless occasions that he believed he deserved a loyal attorney general who served him the way Eric Holder served Barack Obama.
Whitaker is considered a loyalist, and he has repeatedly criticized Mueller and his probe — raising alarms among Democrats who fear he might try to limit or even end the Russia investigation. But Trump officials are looking for someone with stronger credentials more likely to survive what could be a contentious Senate confirmation process.
Attorney General may be just one of several cabinet vacancies Trump will need to fill in the coming months, amid widespread talk that several top officials could leave or be pushed out.
Speculation is growing about the fate of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, about whom Trump has expressed private frustration. The 80-year-old billionaire has supported Trump’s controversial tariffs on trade partners, but may be asked to resign as Trump weighs post-midterm personnel changes.
The leading candidate to replace Ross if that happens is now Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. McMahon has made clear she is interested in the position and would accept it if it is offered, according to a source familiar with the conversations.
Whether Ross stays or goes will depend on the extent to which newly empowered Democrats in the House decide to probe the Commerce secretary’s finances and questions about his divestment of assets, a White House official said. If Democrats decide to press those issues, Ross could have a harder time staying.
McMahon and her husband, Vince — the CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment — have known the Trumps for years and were early and active supporters of Trump’s presidential campaign. McMahon, who initially backed Christie’s 2016 White House bid, is credited in part with helping secure his support for Trump during the campaign.
Inside the White House, McMahon is viewed as largely pro-free trade and less friendly to tariffs than Ross. So her takeover at Commerce, if it happens, might be seen as a shift away from economic policies that critics call protectionist. In an administration filled with big personalities and which has struggled to attract talent, she is appreciated for being low-key, competent, loyal — and easily confirmable by the Senate.