Trump fires Sessions and taps Mueller critic as acting attorney general
President Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, throwing the Russia investigation into turmoil and capping off a longrunning feud between the two men that will go down as one of the most rancorous political standoffs in modern memory.
The President announced Sessions will be temporarily replaced by his own chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who will now oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 election.
Whitaker, a Trump loyalist and former U.S. attorney in Iowa, has been openly critical of Mueller's inquiry.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date,” Trump tweeted.
In a resignation letter, Sessions made clear in the very first sentence that the end of his Justice Department tenure was not voluntary.
“Mr. President,” Sessions wrote. “At your request, I am submitting my resignation.”
Sessions' departure as the nation's top law enforcement official comes after months of public spats with the President and casts doubt over the future of Mueller's investigation.
It was not immediately known if Whitaker plans to clamp down on the probe or whether it will still be overseen in some capacity by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has supervised Mueller since Sessions recused himself in March 2017 amid revelations he had twice met with the Kremlin's ambassador to the U.S. while serving on Trump's campaign.
However, a former Justice Department official said it is certainly within Whitaker's authority as acting attorney general to limit the scope of Mueller's investigation and become the law enforcement ally Trump never saw in Sessions.
“He's now effectively the top of the Justice Department,” the ex-official told the Daily News.
Whitaker 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 a July 2017 interview with CNN.
In an op-ed published by the network a month later, Whitaker sided with Trump in arguing that Mueller had crossed a “red line” by looking into the President's personal finances.
“This information is deeply concerning to me,” Whitaker, 49, wrote. “It does not take a lawyer or even a former federal prosecutor like myself to conclude that investigating Donald Trump's finances or his family's finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even some Republicans quickly called on Whitaker to recuse himself from involvement in the Mueller investigation, pointing to his public slights against the inquiry.
“Given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation, Matthew Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement,” Pelosi tweeted. “Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investiga-
Two months after Sessions' recusal, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to take over the Russia investigation from ex-FBI Director James Comey, who had just been fired by Trump.
Ever since, Trump has publicly insulted Sessions, calling him “beleaguered” and “weak” while blasting him for not taking control of Mueller's probe, which the President frequently calls a “witch hunt,” even though it has secured indictments and guilty pleas from nearly 40 Trump associates and Russian operatives.
Sessions has pushed back, issuing a statement in August pledging to not be “influenced by political considerations.”
Trump has long toyed with the idea of firing Sessions and replacing him with someone who could rein in Mueller's investigative abilities.
Having reclaimed control of the House in Tuesday's midterm elections, Dems balked at Sessions' firing and pledged to investigate what went into Trump's decision.
“There is no mistaking what this means, and what is at stake: this is a constitutionally perilous moment for our country and for the President,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who's expected to be named chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when Congress comes back in session. “Trump may think he has the power to hire and fire whomever he pleases, but he cannot take such action if it is determined that it is for the purposes of subverting the rule of law and obstructing justice. If he abuses his office in such a fashion, then there will be consequences.”
In addition to Russian election interference, Mueller is investigating whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey. Sessions' axing could become another topic of investigation for the special counsel, according to legal experts.
“Trump was angry that Sessions would not interfere with, stop, or restrict the Mueller investigation,” tweeted Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Illinois. “This and other evidence could indicate that Trump fired Sessions with the intent of impeding the investigation.”
With Tuesday's midterm elections widening the Republican majority in the Senate, Trump's replacement for Sessions will likely sail through the nomination process, although contentious confirmation hearings are sure to ensue, with Democrats expected to grill any nominee on Mueller's probe and the limits of presidential powers.
A person close to Trump said Sessions' exit was a long time coming but expressed surprise at how quickly the President moved to boot him after the midterms.
“I would have thought they would have waited until at least after Thanksgiving or at the very least until after lunch,” the source told The News. “But unpredictability is the cornerstone of a good reality TV show."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday became latest cabinet member to be shown the door by President Trump.