WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Friday that he has not yet spoken to the new acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, about the special counsel investigation, and he distanced himself from Mr. Whitaker by suggesting that he did not know him.
Mr. Whitaker, who now oversees the investigation, has visited the Oval Office several times and is said to have an easy chemistry with the president, according to people familiar with the relationship.
”I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left Washington for a weekend trip to Paris. “Matt Whitaker is a very highly respected man.”
Mr. Whitaker has publicly sided with Mr. Trump in saying that the special counsel investigation is an overreach, raising questions about what changes Mr. Whitaker could make to the special counsel’s mandate, particularly changes that might benefit Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday after months of publicly shaming him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Whitaker had been serving as Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff.
Putting a Trump loyalist in charge of an investigation that the president has called a hoax and a witch hunt immediately raised concerns about the future of the special counsel’s role. Mr. Whitaker has said that the special counsel investigation, led by Robert S. Mueller III, has gone too far, and that Mr. Mueller should not be permitted to investigate the president’s finances.
Mr. Trump on Friday said Mr. Whitaker “was confirmed at the highest level” when he served as the United States attorney for the Southern District of Iowa during the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Trump incorrectly asserted that Mr. Mueller had not been confirmed by the Senate.
“Mueller is doing a report,” the president said, referring to a report Mr. Mueller is to deliver to the attorney general after he completes his work. “He hasn’t gone through the Senate process.”
Mr. Mueller has been confirmed by the Senate several times — to become the head of the F.B.I.; to serve as the United States attorney for the Northern District of California; and to serve as the assistant attorney general at the Justice Department in 1990. The special counsel position is not one that requires Senate confirmation.