Ses­sions forced out

At­tor­ney gen­eral had en­dured a year of sting­ing crit­i­cism from Pres­i­dent Trump.

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Eric Tucker and Michael Bal­samo As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Jonathan Lemire and Mary Clare Jalonick in Wash­ing­ton and Ryan Fo­ley in Iowa City, Iowa, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

WASH­ING­TON >> At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions was pushed out Wed­nes­day af­ter en­dur­ing more than a year of blis­ter­ing and per­sonal at­tacks from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who in­serted in his place a Repub­li­can Party loy­al­ist with au­thor­ity to over­see the re­main­der of the spe­cial coun­sel’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The move has po­ten­tially omi­nous im­pli­ca­tions for spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s probe given that the new act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, Matthew Whi­taker, un­til now Ses­sions’ chief of staff, has ques­tioned the in­quiry’s scope and spoke pub­licly be­fore join­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment about ways an at­tor­ney gen­eral could the­o­ret­i­cally stymie the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Con­gres­sional Democrats, con­cerned about pro­tect­ing Mueller, called on Whi­taker to re­cuse him­self from over­see­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in its fi­nal but po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive stages.

That duty has be­longed to Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, who ap­pointed Mueller and closely mon­i­tors his work.

The res­ig­na­tion, in a one-page let­ter to Trump, came one day af­ter Repub­li­cans lost con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and was the first of sev­eral ex­pected post-midterms Cabi­net and White House de­par­tures. Though Ses­sions was an early and promi­nent cam­paign backer of Trump, his de­par­ture let­ter lacked ef­fu­sive praise for the pres­i­dent and made clear the res­ig­na­tion came “at your re­quest.”

“Since the day I was hon­ored to be sworn in as at­tor­ney gen­eral of the United States, I came to work at the Depart­ment of Jus­tice ev­ery day de­ter­mined to do my duty and serve my coun­try,” Ses­sions wrote.

The de­par­ture was the cul­mi­na­tion

of a toxic re­la­tion­ship that frayed just weeks into Ses­sions’ ten­ure, when he stepped aside from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause of his cam­paign ad­vo­cacy and fol­low­ing the rev­e­la­tion that he had met twice in 2016 with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador to the U.S.

Trump blamed the re­cusal for the ap­point­ment of Mueller, who took over the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion two months later and be­gan ex­am­in­ing whether Trump’s hec­tor­ing of Ses­sions was part of a broader ef­fort to ob­struct the probe.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion has so far pro­duced 32 crim­i­nal charges and guilty pleas from four for­mer Trump aides. But the work is not done and crit­i­cal de­ci­sions await that could shape the re­main­der of Trump’s pres­i­dency.

Mueller’s grand jury, for in­stance, has heard tes­ti­mony for months about Trump con­fi­dant Roger Stone and what ad­vance knowl­edge he may have had about Rus­sian hack­ing of Demo­cratic emails. Mueller’s team has also been press­ing for an in­ter­view with Trump. And the depart­ment is ex­pected at some point to re­ceive a con­fi­den­tial re­port of

Mueller’s find­ings, though it’s un­clear how much will be pub­lic.

Sep­a­rately, Jus­tice Depart­ment pros­e­cu­tors in New York se­cured a guilty plea from Trump’s for­mer per­sonal lawyer, Michael Co­hen, who said the pres­i­dent di­rected him to ar­range hush-money pay­ments be­fore the 2016 elec­tion to two women who said they had sex with Trump.

Trump had re­peat­edly been talked out of fir­ing Ses­sions un­til af­ter the midterms, but he told con­fi­dants in re­cent weeks that he wanted Ses­sions out as soon as pos­si­ble af­ter the elec­tions, ac­cord­ing to a Repub­li­can close to the White House who was not au­tho­rized to pub­licly dis­cuss pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

The pres­i­dent de­flected ques­tions about Ses­sions’ ex­pected de­par­ture at a White House news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day. He did not men­tion that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Ses­sions be­fore­hand to ask for his res­ig­na­tion. The un­dated let­ter was then sent to the White House.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment did not di­rectly an­swer whether Whi­taker would as­sume con­trol of Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, with spokes­woman Sarah Is­gur Flores say­ing he would be “in charge of all mat­ters un­der the purview of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice.”

Rosen­stein re­mains at the depart­ment and could still be in­volved in over­sight. He has pre­vi­ously said that he saw no ba­sis for fir­ing Mueller. Trump said Wed­nes­day that he did not plan to stop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

With­out Ses­sions’ cam­paign or Rus­sia en­tan­gle­ments, there’s no le­gal rea­son Whi­taker couldn’t im­me­di­ately over­see the probe. And since Ses­sions tech­ni­cally re­signed in­stead of forc­ing the White House to fire him, he opened the door un­der fed­eral law to al­low­ing the pres­i­dent to choose his suc­ces­sor in­stead of sim­ply el­e­vat­ing Rosen­stein, said Uni­ver­sity of Texas law pro­fes­sor Stephen Vladeck.

“Ses­sions did not do the thing he could have done to bet­ter pro­tect Rosen­stein, and through Rosen­stein, the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Vladeck said.

That left Whi­taker in charge, at least for now, though Democrats, in­clud­ing Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said he should re­cuse him­self be­cause of his com­ments on the probe. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Demo­crat on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, said he wants “an­swers im­me­di­ately” and “we will hold peo­ple ac­count­able.”

Whi­taker, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney from Iowa who twice ran un­suc­cess­fully for statewide of­fice and founded a law firm with other Repub­li­can Party ac­tivists, once opined about a sce­nario in which Trump could fire Ses­sions and then ap­point an act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral who could sti­fle the fund­ing of Mueller’s probe.

In that sce­nario, Mueller’s bud­get could be re­duced “so low that his in­ves­ti­ga­tion grinds to al­most a halt,” Whi­taker said dur­ing an in­ter­view with CNN in July 2017 be­fore he joined the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

In a CNN op-ed last year, Whi­taker wrote, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Rus­sia 2016 elec­tion-med­dling in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is dan­ger­ously close to cross­ing.”

Trump’s re­lent­less at­tacks on Ses­sions came even though the Alabama Repub­li­can was the first U.S. sen­a­tor to en­dorse Trump and de­spite the fact his crime-fight­ing agenda and pri­or­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly his hawk­ish im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment poli­cies, largely mir­rored the pres­i­dent’s.

He found sat­is­fac­tion in be­ing able to re­verse Obama-era poli­cies that con­ser­va­tives say flouted the will of Congress, en­cour­ag­ing pros­e­cu­tors to pur­sue the most se­ri­ous charges they could and pro­mot­ing more ag­gres­sive en­force­ment of fed­eral mar­i­juana law.

He also an­nounced me­dia leak crack­downs and tougher poli­cies against opi­oids, and his Jus­tice Depart­ment de­fended a since­a­ban­doned ad­min­is­tra­tion pol­icy that re­sulted in mi­grant par­ents be­ing sep­a­rated from their chil­dren at the bor­der.

But the re­la­tion­ship was ir­repara­bly dam­aged in March 2017 when Ses­sions, ac­knowl­edg­ing pre­vi­ously undis­closed meet­ings with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador and cit­ing his work as a cam­paign aide, re­cused him­self from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump re­peat­edly lamented that he would have never se­lected Ses­sions if he had known the at­tor­ney gen­eral would re­cuse him­self. The re­cusal left the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the hands of Rosen­stein, who ap­pointed Mueller two months later af­ter Trump fired then-FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions ap­pears with Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, left, at a 2017news con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Ses­sions was fired Wed­nes­day by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

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