Ouster of Ses­sions throws fu­ture of spe­cial coun­sel probe into ques­tion,

Belleville News-Democrat - - Front Page - BY ROS­ALIND S. HEL­DER­MAN, MATT ZAPO­TO­SKY AND CAROL D. LEON­NIG

The fu­ture of the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 cam­paign was thrown into un­cer­tainty Wed­nes­day after Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ousted At­tor­ney General Jeff Ses­sions, a move that will re­sult in a change in the probe’s su­per­vi­sion.

Trump named as act­ing at­tor­ney general Matthew Whi­taker, Ses­sions’ chief of staff, who as a le­gal com­men­ta­tor last year wrote that spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller ap­peared to be tak­ing his in­ves­ti­ga­tion too far.

A Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial said Wed­nes­day that Whi­taker would as­sume fi­nal de­ci­sion-mak­ing author­ity over the spe­cial coun­sel probe in­stead of Deputy At­tor­ney General Rod Rosen­stein.

Since last year, Rosen­stein has over­seen the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause Ses­sions, a key Trump sur­ro­gate in 2016, re­cused him­self from deal­ing with mat­ters in­volv­ing the cam­paign. It wasn’t im­me­di­ately clear what role, if any, Rosen­stein may play in the probe go­ing for­ward.

As the ul­ti­mate su­per­vi­sor of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Whi­taker could sharply cur­tail Mueller’s author­ity, cut his bud­get or or­der him to cease lines of in­quiry.

How­ever, Whi­taker’s role could still be re­viewed by ethics of­fi­cials. Com­ments he has made about Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion could put pres­sure on him to re­cuse him­self, as Ses­sions did.

A le­gal com­men­ta­tor be­fore he came into the Jus­tice De­part­ment, Whi­taker has mused pub­licly about how a Ses­sions re­place­ment might re­duce Mueller’s bud­get “so low that his in­ves­ti­ga­tion grinds to al­most a halt.”

He wrote in a Septem­ber 2017 col­umn that Mueller had “come up to a red line in the Rus­sia 2016 elec­tion-med­dling in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is dan­ger­ously close to cross­ing” after CNN re­ported that the spe­cial coun­sel could be look­ing into Trump and his as­so­ciates’ fi­nan­cial ties to Rus­sia.

Some Democrats im­me­di­ately called for Whi­taker to re­cuse him­self from su­per­vi­sion of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the rank­ing mem­ber of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, which has also been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the 2016 elec­tion, said in a state­ment that any ef­fort to in­ter­fere in Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion would be a “gross abuse of power by the Pres­i­dent.”

“While the Pres­i­dent may have the author­ity to re­place the At­tor­ney General, this must not be the first step in an at­tempt to im­pede, ob­struct or end the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Warner said.

Trump’s de­ci­sion to push Ses­sions out Wed­nes­day con­flicted with com­ments he of­fered dur­ing a news con­fer­ence when he in­sisted he had a right to end the in­ves­ti­ga­tion but said that he would pre­fer to “let it go on.”

“I could fire every­body right now, but I don’t want to stop it be­cause po­lit­i­cally I don’t like stop­ping it,” Trump said. “It’s a dis­grace. It should never have been started, be­cause there is no crime.”

Whi­taker has not been con­firmed by the Se­nate and, by law, can only serve for 210 days be­fore he must be re­placed by some­one who has been con­firmed.

He will take over the in­ves­ti­ga­tion at a par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal mo­ment, as Mueller was ex­pected to end what has been a quiet pub­lic phase of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In the run-up to Elec­tion Day, there were no in­dict­ments or pub­lic pro­nounce­ments by the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice, in keep­ing with Jus­tice De­part­ment guidelines that pros­e­cu­tors should avoid tak­ing steps that could be per­ceived as in­tend­ing to in­flu­ence the out­come of the vote.

With the midterm elec­tions now over, Mueller faces key de­ci­sion points in his 18-month-old in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 cam­paign – a probe that has al­ready led to charges against 32 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 26 Rus­sians. Four aides to Trump have pleaded guilty to var­i­ous charges, most re­cently his for­mer cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort in Septem­ber.

Among the most press­ing mat­ters now be­fore the spe­cial coun­sel: a probe into long­time Trump ad­viser Roger Stone’s ac­tiv­i­ties and on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with Trump’s le­gal team over a re­quest to in­ter­view him.

For months, Mueller has been seek­ing to ques­tion Trump as part of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which is also ex­am­in­ing whether the pres­i­dent has sought to ob­struct the probe.

Ja­cob Frenkel, a for­mer state and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor who is now in pri­vate prac­tice at Dickinson Wright, noted that by keep­ing a low pro­file, Mueller avoided the wide­spread crit­i­cism that thenFBI Di­rec­tor James Comey faced when he made an­nounce­ments about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton’s email prac­tices in the fi­nal weeks of the 2016 race.

But Frenkel said he did not ex­pect Mueller’s si­lence to con­tinue for long.

“For me, the ques­tion is, ‘How many in­dict­ments and who?’” Frenkel said. “It is not an ‘if.’ “

A spokesman for Mueller de­clined to com­ment.

Mueller’s pros­e­cu­tors have al­ready laid out de­tailed al­le­ga­tions of how Rus­sia sought to ma­nip­u­late Amer­i­cans through so­cial me­dia, break into state vot­ing sys­tems and hack the email ac­counts of Demo­cratic com­mit­tees and party lead­ers.

But the spe­cial coun­sel’s team has not in­di­cated pub­licly that it has drawn any con­clu­sions about whether Trump as­so­ciates con­spired with the Rus­sians or whether the pres­i­dent ob­structed jus­tice.

At some point, the spe­cial coun­sel is ex­pected to is­sue a con­fi­den­tial re­port to Rosen­stein con­tain­ing his con­clu­sions about both mat­ters.

Those find­ings – which could be shared with Congress – are ea­gerly awaited by Democrats, who on Tues­day re­gained con­trol of the House. Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, DCalif., has said that Mueller’s con­clu­sions will af­fect whether the party pur­sues im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings against Trump.

Bar­bara McQuade, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney for the Eastern District of Michi­gan, said there have been some signs that Mueller may be wrap­ping up. She noted that he has shed staff mem­bers and handed off in­ves­ti­ga­tions to pros­e­cu­tors in New York and Wash­ing­ton.

ERIC THAYER Bloomberg

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 cam­paign was thrown into un­cer­tainty Wed­nes­day after Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ousted At­tor­ney General Jeff Ses­sions.

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