Trump forces AG Sessions to resign
President Donald Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, ending a partnership that soured almost from the start of the administration and degenerated into one of the most acrimonious public standoffs between a commanderin-chief and a senior Cabinet member in modern U.S. history.
Sessions’ resignation, made at the president’s request, was being delivered to John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff. It came just a day after midterm elections in which Democrats captured control of the House, but Republican success in holding onto the Senate and building their slim majority may make it easier for the president to confirm a successor.
“Dear Mr. President, at your request I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions said in his letter. He added, “Most importantly as my time as attorney general, we have restored and upheld the rule of law,” and thanked the president.
Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, will take over as acting attorney general, Trump said in a tweet announcing the shake-up. Whitaker will now assume supervision of the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!” he wrote. “A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
His resignation came barely an hour after a news conference in which Trump was asked whether Sessions and Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, still had job security. He dodged the question. “I’d rather answer that at a little bit different time,” the president said.
Trump has regularly attacked the Justice Department and Sessions, blaming the attorney general for the specter of the special counsel investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Trump has said for months that he wished to replace Sessions, but lawmakers and administration officials believed that firing the attorney general before the midterm elections would have had negative consequences for Republicans in tight races. So it came as little surprise when Sessions resigned the day after the midterms were over.
Trump blamed Sessions, 71, for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation in its early stages, leading to the appointment of a special counsel.
“He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’” Trump said this year in a Fox News interview. “I wanted to stay uninvolved. But when everybody sees what’s going on in the Justice Department – I always put ‘justice’ now with quotes.”
The deputy attorney general, now Rosenstein, would normally be in line to become the acting attorney general, but Trump has complained publicly about Rosenstein, too. Since Sessions is recused from all election-related matters, Rosenstein oversees Mueller, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia.
To dismiss a special counsel, the president has to order the attorney general or, in the case of a recusal, the deputy attorney general to carry it out. Rosenstein has said that he sees no justification to dismiss Mueller. Trump has already fired James Comey, the FBI director originally overseeing the investigation.
In pushing out his attorney general, the president cast aside one of his earliest and strongest supporters.
In February 2016, Sessions became the first sitting senator to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign, and in the months leading up to the election, he became one of the candidate’s closest national security advisers.
Only weeks after he was confirmed as the United States’ top law enforcement officer, Sessions became ensnared in the Russia inquiries that have consumed Trump’s presidency. He recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department investigation in March 2017, after revelations that he had failed to report encounters with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of Russia during the 2016 campaign.
At the time, Sessions said there was nothing nefarious about those meetings, although he acknowledged that he “should have slowed down” and been more thoughtful in denying any contacts with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation process. His recusal was one of his first public acts as attorney general.
Trump has long believed that those who have supported and defended him are most entitled to high-ranking positions in the federal government. Sessions, in Trump’s mind, had betrayed that axiom.
Trump also publicly badgered Sessions to open investigations into his defeated rival, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats, and when Sessions did not, the president excoriated the attorney general. Critics from both parties said the president was shredding the traditional independence of the law enforcement agencies in seeking what appeared to be politically motivated prosecutions.
For the most part, Sessions made no public retort. But after the president chided him in February for leaving an inquiry into the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation to an inspector general rather than conducting his own review, Sessions pushed back. “As long as I am the attorney general,” he said, “I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor.”
In March, Sessions said he still believed he did the right thing in recusing himself.
When Trump said that Sessions “never took control of the Justice Department,” Sessions fired back hours later, saying in a rare public rebuke that he “took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in.”
“The Department of Justice,” Sessions said, “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”
Sessions seemed more aligned with the president when he fired Andrew McCabe as deputy director of the FBI barely a day before McCabe was due to retire, jeopardizing his pension. Trump for months had publicly berated McCabe, a Republican, because McCabe’s wife had run for office as a Democrat with financial support from a friend of Clinton’s.
In firing him, Sessions cited an inspector general investigation that found that McCabe had not been fully candid about his interactions with a reporter, an assertion the former deputy director denied.