It’s been a stratospheric rise.
Over the course of 14 months, Matthew Whitaker has gone from being part of Washington’s right-wing political furniture to overseeing the Justice Department, if only for a maximum 210-day statutory limit.
Whitaker, who once called for a special counsel investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use, is now President Trump’s choice to oversee the Russia probe. His time in the years before joining government show him raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in part by heading The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) from October 2014 to September 2017.
The group devoted most of its time under Whitaker’s tenure to calling for investigations of Hillary Clinton and alleging ethical violations by other leading Democrats.
The group’s most recent tax filing indicates Whitaker received a salary of $402,000 in 2016 as the group’s executive director, as it paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative DC mainstays. Working at FACT appears to have allowed Whitaker to break into a close circle of high-level right-wing lawyers and activists in Washington — a big leap for a former U.S. attorney who, until 2014, does not appear to have worked outside of southern Iowa.
While at FACT, Whitaker attempted to discredit allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“The left is trying to sow this theory that essentially Russians interfered with the U.S. election, which has been proven false,” Whitaker said in a radio interview. “They did not have any impact on the election and that has been very clear from the Obama Administration.”
From its first releases in late 2014, FACT focused on Hillary Clinton.
Whitaker took a leading role in the effort, at one point writing a column titled “I would indict Hillary Clinton,” published after then-FBI Director Jim Comey declined to do so.
In 2015, FACT made its first big splash by filing an FEC complaint against Catalist, a data company associated with the Democratic Party. At the time, the Washington Post analogized FACT with left-leaning groups like Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.
FACT, while under Whitaker, also took potshots at numerous Democratic candidates. In September 2016, with the general election on the horizon, the group filed FEC complaints against Democratic Senate candidates Evan Bayh, Patrick Murphy, and Ted Strickland.
Another case that FACT focused on under Whitaker is that of former House Democratic Party IT aide Imran Awan. In July 2017, FACT demanded an investigation into Awan’s relationship with his former boss, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). Conservatives initially hypothesized that the Awan case could be an example of foreign spying or meddling that would parallel — or surpass — Russian meddling in the 2016 election. That did not turn out to be the case.
Over 2015 and 2016, according to publicly available tax filings, FACT paid $324,150 to the opposition research powerhouse America Rising, the political action committee that describes its “sole purpose” as “to hold Democrats accountable and expose any hidden hypocrisy.”
According to the Daily Beast, the two groups had a circular arrangement in which FACT would pay America Rising for research, FACT would then file complaints or write reports based off of the research it purchased, and then America Rising would speak with reporters about the information, citing FACT as a non-partisan, independent organization.
Whitaker’s move to DC came after a career spent almost entirely in southern Iowa.
A former University of Iowa tight end, Whitaker was named U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa in 2004.
He left his post in 2009, returning to private practice while keeping an eye on Republican party politics. Whitaker served as Iowa director for Rick Perry’s 2012 Republican presidential primary run, and came in fourth place in the Iowa 2014 Republican Senate primary.
Perry, still Texas governor at the time, even flew to Iowa to campaign for Whitaker.
“Matt is a very loyal friend and a person who I had the privilege to get to know in a personal and professional way,” Perry said during a campaign visit to a machine tools factory.
Whitaker lost, but by the end of the year had taken the helm of FACT, where he worked with individuals with deep ties to the conservative movement.
FACT’s treasurer was Neil Corkery, a DC-based conservative activist whose wife helped found the Judicial Crisis Network (originally called the Judicial Confirmation Network) in 2005. JCN acts as a financial and advocacy arm for the conservative legal movement, most recently taking the lead in opposing President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland and shepherding through President Trump’s nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Corkery is registered as treasurer at numerous other nonprofits, including the Judicial Education Project and Catholic Voices.
The other name on FACT’s filing, William Gustoff, worked in private practice with Whitaker at his Iowa law firm.
Tax documents show FACT forging relationships with mainstays of the DC conservative community, some of which would later go on to play key roles in the Trump administration.
For two years of Whitaker’s tenure, FACT also hired Creative Response Concepts (CRC) for $267,443, a PR firm known for “swift-boating” John Kerry and whose clients include the Federalist Society and Corkley’s Judicial Crisis Network.
CRC also achieved some notoriety over the summer for helping conservative legal activist Ed Whelan develop the now-notorious theory that a classmate of Brett Kavanaugh’s was actually responsible for the alleged sexual assault on Christine Blasey Ford.
In a small irony, FACT paid nearly $300,000 in 2016 to the DC law firm Cooper & Kirk for legal services. Among firm founder Chuck Cooper’s clients is Jeff Sessions, the man Whitaker just replaced.