Jeff Ses­sions fir­ing: top Repub­li­cans warn Mueller in­quiry must con­tinue

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Jon Swaine in New York

Se­nior Repub­li­cans led a cho­rus of pub­lic warn­ings that the spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller must be al­lowed to con­tinue his Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion after Don­ald Trump fi­nally fired his at­tor­ney general, Jeff Ses­sions.

As Trump re­placed Ses­sions with a se­nior aide, Matthew Whi­taker, a critic of Mueller’s in­quiry, Se­na­tor Su­san Collins was amongst the first Repub­li­cans to warn: “It is im­per­a­tive that the Ad­min­is­tra­tion not im­pede the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion … Spe­cial Coun­sel Mueller must be al­lowed to com­plete his work with­out in­ter­fer­ence.”

Mitt Rom­ney, who won the race on Tues­day to be­come a se­na­tor for Utah, aimed his first broad­side at Trump, tweet­ing: “It is im­per­a­tive that the im­por­tant work of the Jus­tice De­part­ment con­tin­ues, and that the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­ceeds to its con­clu­sion unim­peded.”

As pro­gres­sives ac­ti­vated a plan for mass protests across the United States, start­ing at 5pm Thurs­day in all time zones, the for­mer CIA chief, John Bren­nan, pre­dicted that it was likely Mueller had al­ready com­pleted his re­port for the deputy at­tor­ney general, Rod Rosen­stein, who was yes­ter­day re­lieved of his duty over­see­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence and any col­lu­sion with the Trump cam­paign. Bren­nan told MSNBC: “If there are some ma­jor in­dict­ments com­ing down the pike, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if you’re go­ing to see it very soon. Gen­er­ally the re­port that the spe­cial coun­sel will draft and de­liver to Rod Rosen­stein, I wouldn’t be sur­prised if that is ready to go.”

Ses­sions looked close to tears as he was ap­plauded by jus­tice de­part­ment staff on his way out of the build­ing on Wed­nes­day night.

His de­par­ture came hours after he re­ceived a White House call or­der­ing him to re­sign.

He was re­placed by his for­mer chief of staff, Matthew Whi­taker, who has pre­vi­ously called for Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion to be de­funded and reined in.

Trump said in a tweet on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon that Whi­taker had been ap­pointed act­ing at­tor­ney general and that a per­ma­nent re­place­ment would be nom­i­nated later.

Whi­taker, 49, will take charge of the in­quiry into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion and pos­si­ble col­lu­sion with Trump’s cam­paign. Sarah Is­gur Flores, a jus­tice de­part­ment spokes­woman, said in an email: “The act­ing at­tor­ney general is in charge of all mat­ters un­der the purview of the De­part­ment of Jus­tice.”

Democrats ex­pressed con­cern that the pres­i­dent was mov­ing to sab­o­tage Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which has ob­tained guilty pleas to fed­eral crim­i­nal charges from Trump’s for­mer cam­paign chair­man, deputy cam­paign chair­man, White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and cam­paign for­eign pol­icy ad­viser.

Se­na­tor Chuck Schumer of New York, the mi­nor­ity leader, said in a state­ment that Whi­taker should re­cuse him­self from the Rus­sia is­sue in light of “his pre­vi­ous com­ments ad­vo­cat­ing de­fund­ing and im­pos­ing lim­i­ta­tions on the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion”.

Trump’s de­ci­sion con­cluded a lon­grun­ning pub­lic feud be­tween the pres­i­dent and his be­lea­guered at­tor­ney general.

Ses­sions said in an un­dated let­ter to Trump re­leased on Wed­nes­day: “At your re­quest, I am sub­mit­ting my res­ig­na­tion.” He took credit for re­vers­ing a re­cent rise in vi­o­lent crime. He was later ap­plauded by staff as he left the de­part­ment’s head­quar­ters.

“We thank At­tor­ney General Jeff Ses­sions for his ser­vice, and wish him well,” Trump said.

A US of­fi­cial said on Wed­nes­day that Ses­sions was told he had to re­sign in a tele­phone call from John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, rather than Trump him­self.

Ses­sions, a for­mer US se­na­tor for Alabama, was one of the ear­li­est sup­port­ers of Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, but ran into trou­ble soon after be­ing con­firmed to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He en­raged Trump by re­cus­ing him­self in March 2017 from in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion, fol­low­ing rev­e­la­tions that he had two undis­closed meet­ings with Sergey Kislyak, then Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to the US.

Ses­sions had not dis­closed the dis­cus­sions when asked un­der oath dur­ing his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in early 2017 about con­tacts be­tween Trump’s cam­paign and Moscow. Fol­low­ing his re­cusal, the deputy at­tor­ney general, Rod Rosen­stein, took over re­spon­si­bil­ity for Rus­sia mat­ters.

In May 2017, after Trump fired the FBI di­rec­tor, James Comey, Rosen­stein shocked the White House by ap­point­ing the for­mer FBI chief Robert Mueller as a spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence and any co­or­di­na­tion with Trump’s cam­paign team.

That in­ves­ti­ga­tion has since con­tin­ued with­out Ses­sions be­ing in­volved, leav­ing Trump deeply frus­trated. Trump has pub­licly lam­basted Ses­sions for re­cus­ing him­self, claim­ing he ought in­stead to have pro­tected Trump against what the pres­i­dent has termed a “witch-hunt” over Rus­sia. Ses­sions and Rosen­stein have de­fended Mueller’s in­tegrity.

Whi­taker’s view on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion ap­pears to be in more line with the pres­i­dent’s. He has pub­licly pro­posed chok­ing off fund­ing for Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion and wrote an ar­ti­cle for CNN last year declar­ing that the spe­cial coun­sel was “go­ing too far” and needed to be brought un­der con­trol.

“The pres­i­dent is ab­so­lutely cor­rect,” Whi­taker said, after Trump sug­gested Mueller would ex­ceed his re­mit by look­ing into the pres­i­dent’s fi­nances. “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Rus­sia 2016 elec­tion-med­dling in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is dan­ger­ously close to cross­ing.”

Con­gress­man Jer­rold Nadler of New York, the likely new chair­man of the House ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee, said the Amer­i­can pub­lic “must have an­swers im­me­di­ately” on Trump’s rea­sons for fir­ing Ses­sions.

“Why is the pres­i­dent mak­ing this change and who has author­ity over Spe­cial Coun­sel Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion? We will be hold­ing peo­ple ac­count­able,” Nadler said on Twit­ter.

Se­na­tor Mark Warner of Vir­ginia, the se­nior Demo­crat on the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, urged sen­a­tors from both par­ties to “speak out now and de­liver a clear mes­sage” to Trump that he must not in­ter­fere with Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Le­gal an­a­lysts said that Trump’s de­ci­sion, an­nounced soon after a lengthy and chaotic post-midterm elec­tion press con­fer­ence at the White House, may set off a long-feared con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis over the fate of the in­quiry, which fol­lowed a con­clu­sion by US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies that Rus­sia in­ter­vened to help Trump win in 2016.

Lau­rence Tribe, a con­sti­tu­tional law pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Univer­sity, said Trump’s re­place­ment of Ses­sions with Whi­taker was arguably an im­peach­able of­fence in it­self. “This rule of law cri­sis has been a slow-mo­tion train wreck for a long time,” said Tribe.

In any case, the fir­ing of Ses­sions will con­clude a bit­ter pub­lic dis­pute be­tween the at­tor­ney general and his pres­i­dent that is un­prece­dented in re­cent times.

In Au­gust, Trump sharply crit­i­cised Ses­sions in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view the day after the pres­i­dent’s for­mer lawyer, Michael Co­hen, pleaded guilty to cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tions and his for­mer cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort was con­victed of fraud – both cases hav­ing stemmed from the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump said: “I put in an at­tor­ney general that never took con­trol of the jus­tice de­part­ment.”

Ses­sions struck back with a state­ment that said: “I took con­trol of the De­part­ment of Jus­tice the day I was sworn in … While I am at­tor­ney general the ac­tions of the de­part­ment will not be im­prop­erly in­flu­enced by po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions.”

Pho­to­graph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Jeff Ses­sions with Don­ald Trump in Quan­tico, Vir­ginia, last year. On Wed­nes­day, Ses­sions wrote: ‘At your re­quest, I am sub­mit­ting myres­ig­na­tion.’

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