Trump pushes Sessions out of AG post
President Donald Trump forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday and replaced him with a loyalist who will take charge of the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference, a defiant move just a day after a midterm election loss.
Sessions delivered his resignation letter to the White House at the request of the president, and Trump tapped Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, as acting attorney general. In that capacity, Whitaker assumes control of the Russia investigation, raising questions about the future of the inquiry led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Whitaker has previously questioned the scope of the investigation. In a column for CNN last year, Whitaker wrote that Mueller would be going too far if he examined the Trump family’s finances.
“This would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt,” Whitaker wrote, echoing the president’s derisive description of the investigation. Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents related to Russia.
Until now, the investigation has been overseen by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, because Sessions re-
cused himself, citing his active role in Trump’s 2016 campaign. Because Whitaker has expressed opinions about the investigation, Justice Department ethics advisers may be asked to weigh whether he should also recuse himself. If that were to happen, Rosenstein would continue to oversee the special counsel.
Whitaker had no plans to make any immediate public comments about Mueller, an administration official said.
The ouster of Sessions, 71, came just a day after midterm elections that handed control of the House to Democrats, dealing a major blow to Trump for the final two years of his term. Republicans preserved their hold on the Senate and increased their majority slightly, making it likelier that Trump will be able to confirm a replacement.
But House Democrats have made clear that they plan to use the subpoena power that will come with their majority to reopen the lower chamber’s own investigation into the Russia matter.
The ouster of Sessions ended a partnership that soured almost from the start and degenerated into one of the most acrimonious public standoffs between a commander-inchief and a senior Cabinet member in modern U.S. history.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, called Sessions before his post-election news conference Wednesday to tell the attorney general that Trump wanted him to step down, the administration official said. Trump, who did not speak with Sessions himself, then ducked questions about Sessions’ fate at the news conference.
Sessions then had his letter, which was undated, delivered to the White House.
Sessions walked out Wednesday evening to applause from more than 150 employees who gathered in a courtyard at the Justice Department.
Trump announced the resignation and Whitaker’s assignment on Twitter.
The president 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 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, Rosenstein, would normally be in line to become the acting attorney general, but Trump has complained publicly about Rosenstein, too.
Installing Whitaker could clear the way for Trump to force out Mueller. 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.
Whitaker’s ascendance to the top of the Justice Department shows how much loyalty means to Trump. The president has long regarded Whitaker as his eyes and ears inside a department that he considers an enemy institution.
A U.S. attorney, Whitaker has been a frequent White House visitor.
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 him. 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.
In March, Sessions said he still believed he did the right thing in recusing himself.
“I don’t think the attorney general can ask everybody else in the department to follow the rules if the attorney general doesn’t follow them,” he told Time magazine.
Jeff Sessions has resigned at the president’s request.