President Donald Trump's appointment of Matt Whitaker to be the acting attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions has set off a squabble over whether the Iowan should oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian influence on the 2016 election.
Whitaker, long active in Iowa's political circles, has raised questions about whether the Mueller probe was going too far, and his Twitter feed certainly gives us the impression he's not exactly one to encourage a thorough inquiry.
In August 2017, shortly before being appointed Sessions' chief of staff, Whitaker retweeted an article entitled, "Note to Trump's lawyer: Do not cooperate with Mueller lynch mob."
He said it was "worth a read."
There are other troubling examples, as well.
Still, there is probably a more fundamental reason to be concerned about Whitaker's appointment.
A number of legal experts have objected, saying that even in an acting capacity, Whitaker's appointment violates the U.S. Constitution's Appointments Clause.
The argument is the Constitution requires that certain principal officers require Senate confirmation.
Attorneys Neal Katyal, who was an acting solicitor general under Barack Obama, and George Conway III, a prominent litigator and the husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, argued that case in a New York Times opinion piece on Wednesday.
The two note that Whitaker answers only to the president. And the flaw in the appointment is that it "defies one of the explicit checks and balances set out in the Constitution, a provision designed to protect us all against the centralization of government power."
The White House defends the move, saying the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 gives the president the power to make such a temporary appointment.
At this point, it seems to us we might expect somebody in the Senate to weigh in. Perhaps the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Sen. Chuck Grassley chairs.
Like Grassley, we aren't lawyers, much less constitutional scholars. However, it seems to us that, even if Whitaker's appointment is for a brief period, the question surrounding the legality of his appointment still is important.
It raises questions about whether the president is shutting out the Senate from its constitutional role and responsibility, something we think senators should care about.
We believe Grassley would be doing the right thing by calling for hearings on this question.
The White House has signaled it intends to move promptly to find a permanent replacement. But we're not sure that will happen as quickly as some Republicans would like us to believe. And even if it does, a confirmation process would take time to conclude.
In the meantime, Whitaker would remain. In fact, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act would permit him to hold this post for 210 days.
There were reports Friday that Democrats are considering challenging the appointment in court. And perhaps it's the courts that should end up resolving this issue. However, we think the Senate, which tends to jealously guard its prerogatives on so many other things, shouldn't simply turn a blind eye to this question.