AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Three Senate Democrats filed a lawsuit today seeking to stop Matthew Whitaker from serving as acting attorney general. President Trump appointed Whitaker to temporarily fill the post after Jeff Sessions was forced out.
The three senators - Richard Blumenthal, Sheldon Whitehouse and Mazie Hirono - say that act violates the Constitution because Whitaker has not been confirmed by the Senate. Theirs is not the first, but it is the most high-profile lawsuit so far to question Whitaker's role.
On the line now is Senator Richard Blumenthal. Thank you for speaking with us.
RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So the Justice Department says that Whitaker's appointment does not violate the Constitution's appointment clause because he is serving in an acting capacity. And I believe the law says the time limit's around 210 days. So what's the basis of your challenge?
BLUMENTHAL: What President Trump has done, essentially, is an end run around the Constitution. There's no way that any of us, as senators, can perform our critically important and constitutionally required responsibility to provide advice and consent, to approve or not, to scrutinize this appointee.
And it's virtually unprecedented in modern history for a principal officer who reports directly to the president, the chief law enforcement officer, to be appointed for a temporary period without any approval by the United States Senate.
CORNISH: If he does name someone within this 200 days, would that be OK, or do you have a problem with this candidate in particular?
BLUMENTHAL: He's violating the constitution right now. As it happens, this appointee probably would never be approved by the Senate because he is unfit. He has indicated an extreme hostility to the special counsel investigation. He's involved in very questionable business practices. His integrity and his ability are severely challengeable.
But our lawsuit really concerns the Constitution. Our system of checks and balances is at risk when the president can simply dictatorially appoint someone without any check by the United States Senate.
CORNISH: Again, we want to mention that the law does say that someone can be appointed temporarily. That is constitutional. I also want to ask you about another issue - the Mueller investigation.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, let me just interrupt you for a moment.
CORNISH: Oh, please do.
BLUMENTHAL: The law that is the statute says that officials can be appointed temporarily, but we're talking here about a principal officer - not just anyone in the United States government who could be replaced temporarily under the Vacancy Reform Act.
And there is a specific law that says the succession is from the deputy to the attorney general. And constitutionally, there is simply no way that this appointment can pass muster. And our only recourse is to the court.
CORNISH: People have also raised this in context of Mr. Whitaker's past comments about the Mueller investigation. I want to play you something from Fox News host Chris Wallace, who spoke to President Trump yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")
CHRIS WALLACE: If Whitaker decides, in any way, to limit or curtail the Mueller investigation, are you OK with that?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look; it's going to be up to him. I think he's very well aware politically. I think he's astute politically. He's a very smart person, a very respected person. He's going to do what's right. I really believe he's going to do what's right.
CORNISH: Is that assuring to you at all?
BLUMENTHAL: Exactly the opposite. The idea that Matthew Whitaker will control this investigation is absolutely abhorrent. He should, at the very least, recuse himself. He's already stated that he thinks that the investigation is, in effect, a hoax. He has provided a blueprint for how to stifle and strangle it by cutting funds, cutting authority.
CORNISH: And you're referring to his past criticism on CNN and other places where he's been a commentator. I'm going to have to leave it there for now. This is Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democratic senator from Connecticut. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you very much.
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