A-G replaced by Mueller critic
US President Donald Trump’s decision yesterday to force the resignation of Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has raised fears about the future of special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation.
His departure means an Acting Attorney-General, Matt Whitaker — a Mueller critic — will take over supervision of the Mueller probe, replacing Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, who Mr Trump had also clashed with.
Mr Whitaker wrote last year that he did not agree with the broad scope of the Mueller investigation, which he said should not include Mr Trump’s finances.
“Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing,” he wrote. In July last year, Mr Whitaker also mused about a replacement for Mr Sessions cutting off funding to Mr Mueller and his team.
“So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” he said, “and that attorney-general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
Democrat House of Representatives leader Nancy Pelosi said the move was a “blatant attempt” by Mr Trump to undermine and end the Mueller investigation.
“Given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation, Mathew Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller’s investigation,’’ she tweeted. “Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and the integrity of the investigation.”
Mr Rosenstein had pledged he would only fire Mr Mueller for gross misconduct. Any move to remove Mr Mueller would trigger a constitutional and political crisis for Mr Trump.
Mr Trump said yesterday he believed he had the power to sack Mr Mueller but had chosen not to.
“I could fire everyone right now, but I don’t want to because politically I don’t like stopping it,” he said before news broke of Mr Sessions’s sacking. “It’s a disgrace. It should never have been started, because there is no crime.”
As part of his investigation Mr Mueller is looking into Mr Trump’s past statements seeking to fire Mr Sessions or force his resignation in an effort to determine whether those acts are part of a pattern of attempted obstruction of justice.
The timing of the departure of Mr Sessions surprised many in Washington, coming only hours after the results of the mid-term elections were known. His resignation follows almost a year of criticism and at times ridicule of Mr Sessions by Mr Trump who was angered that he recused himself from the Russia probe.
“We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well …” Mr Trump tweeted. “… We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
Mr Sessions was asked yesterday by White House chief of staff John Kelly to summit his resignation. Within hours, Mr Session wrote a letter to the President.
“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” he wrote. “Since the day I was honoured to be sworn in as Attorney-General of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day to do my duty and serve my country.
“I have done so to the best of my ability. Working to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.” Mr Sessions ended his resignation letter saying: “Thank you for the opportunity, Mr President.’’
Mr Trump has had an ongoing feud with Mr Sessions ever since he recused himself from oversight of the FBI’s Russia probe in March last year after misleading his Senate confirmation hearing about his contacts with Russian officials.
His decision meant that his deputy, Mr Rosenstein, took over the probe.
Mr Trump believes Mr Rosenstein’s subsequent decision to appoint a special counsel to take over the FBI’s Russia inquiry would not have happened if Mr Sessions had remained in charge.
“Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department and it’s sort of an incredible thing,” Mr Trump said earlier this year.
“Jeff Sessions recused himself, which he shouldn’t have done, or he should have told me. He took my job (offer), and then he said: ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ I said: ‘What kind of man is this?’
“You know, the only reason I gave him the job (was) because I felt loyalty, he was an original supporter.”
Mr Mueller’s sprawling Russia investigation is looking at the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the links between Mr Trump’s campaign team and Russia at that time, and whether Mr Trump obstructed justice in sacking the then head of the FBI, James Comey.