Getting to like Matt Whitaker, courtesy of the Washington Post

I’m still unhappy about President Trump’s removal of Jeff Sessions. But the more I read about acting attorney general Matt Whitaker in the Washington Post, the more I like him.

Yesterday, the Post’s big reveal about Whitaker was that he spent a few years working for the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a conservative-leaning nonprofit dedicated to exposing unethical conduct by public officials. In that capacity, he often appeared on cable news shows. In these appearances, says the Post, he made many more negative comments about Hillary Clinton, especially the email scandal and the Clinton Foundation, than he did about Republicans FACT was unhappy with.

Whitaker’s work for FACT isn’t a qualification (or a disqualification) for the Attorney General job — his chief qualifications for that position are his time as a U.S. Attorney and his service as chief-of-staff for Attorney General Sessions. However, I’m heartened by the fact that Whitaker worked for a conservative watchdog organization and apparently took conservative positions on “the shows.” And I certainly wouldn’t want an Attorney General who held other than a dim view of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and of the Clinton Foundation’s schemes.

Today, the Post reveals that, as a U.S. Attorney, Whitaker asked for and obtained longer than average sentences for drug dealers. What’s not to like about that?

Plenty, if you’re the Post. It offers us the case of Raenna Woody. Having already been convicted twice of drug dealing, once for dealing meth, she was arrested for dealing meth again.

Faced with the threat of a life sentence under federal law, Woody took a plea deal that resulted in a sentence of 21 to 27 years. President Obama commuted the sentence after Woody served 12 years.

Woody blames Matt Whitaker for her sentence. “Why,” she asks, “was that much of my life taken away from me?”

A better question is why did Woody decide, repeatedly, to endanger the lives of those she sold meth to. Every sale of hard drugs carries with it the possibility of killing the purchaser and, certainly the possibility of wrecking his/her life.

Woody had already been convicted once for selling meth. Because the vast of majority of drug transactions result in no arrest, we can be nearly certain that Woody was a frequent dealer. Thus, it’s clear that Woody was quite willing to jeopardize the lives of others, and that the lesser sentences she had received did not make much of an impression on her.

That’s why so much of her life was “taken away” from her through the sentence Whitaker’s office obtained. She deserved it.

Two liberal judges appointed by President Clinton thought Whitaker’s office was too aggressive in pursuing “enhanced” sentences for drug dealers. This view is symptomatic of the approach liberal judges took in the bad old days of no mandatory minimums and, not coincidentally, rampant crime — the approach that led to the current sentencing regime. It’s the approach that Team Leniency, which now includes President Trump, wants to reinstate, in part.

It should be rejected, as should any movement back in that direction.

I was in Iowa in late 2015, almost seven years since Whitaker had been a U.S. Attorney in that state. By then, I assume, Obama had appointed all of the U.S. Attorneys and hardliners like Whitaker were not among those he selected.

At a campaign event, Dave Begley (our man in Council Bluffs) and I struck up a conversation with a woman from Red Oak, an Iowa town of about 6,000 and the hometown of Sen. Joni Ernst. We talked about the politics of the opioid epidemic. I noted that this seemed to be a big issue in New Hampshire, a state that I understood to be the epicenter of the crisis.

The woman looked me in the eye and said, “it’s a big problem in Red Oak too.”

The people who are spreading the problem deserve the stiff sentences like the ones Matt Whitaker sought. They do not deserve leniency.

To the extent there are exceptions, and I doubt there are many, a president can always commute the sentence as Obama did (unwisely) with Ms. Woody. But to adopt leniency legislation in the midst of a drug epidemic would be perverse.

I’m delighted that Matt Whitaker understands this. I don’t expect him to oppose the FIRST STEP leniency legislation, nor should he now that his boss, the president, supports it.

But the fact that Whitaker wanted stiff sentences when he was on the front line in the war against drugs is reassuring. It’s also consistent with the position of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. This group, made up of the folks who have even more skin in the game when it comes prosecuting federal drug cases, has come out forcefully against FIRST STEP.

The Post may hope that calling attention to Whitaker’s hard line on sentencing will cause the acting AG to fall into disfavor with Trump. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Lenient sentencing is a sideshow for the president — a way to humor Jared and Ivanka, sound bipartisan, and perhaps make inroads among Black voters. Trump’s focus when it comes to the Department of Justice is almost entirely on Robert Mueller.

So is the Washington Post’s. That’s why it keeps running hit-pieces about Whitaker. The Post fears he will rein in Mueller, but it’s far from clear this will happen, as Ben Wittes argues.

Meanwhile, the more the Post attacks Whitaker, the more I like him.

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