Jeff Ses­sions out as at­tor­ney general

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Tucker and Michael Bal­samo

WASH­ING­TON >> At­tor­ney General Jeff Ses­sions was pushed out Wed­nes­day as the coun­try’s chief law en­force­ment of­fi­cer after en­dur­ing more than a year of blis­ter­ing and per­sonal at­tacks from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over his re­cusal from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump an­nounced in a tweet that he was nam­ing Ses­sions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whi­taker, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney from Iowa, as act­ing at­tor­ney general. Whi­taker has crit­i­cized spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into po­ten­tial co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the pres­i­dent’s Repub­li­can

cam­paign and Rus­sia.

Ses­sions, in a one-page let­ter to Trump, said he was re­sign­ing “at your re­quest.” The res­ig­na­tion was the cul­mi­na­tion of a toxic re­la­tion­ship that frayed just weeks into Ses­sions’ tu­mul­tuous ten­ure, when he stepped aside from the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump blamed the de­ci­sion to re­cuse for the ap­point­ment of Mueller, who took over the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and be­gan ex­am­in­ing whether Trump’s hec­tor­ing of Ses­sions was part of a broader ef­fort to stymie the probe.

Trump had re­peat­edly been talked out of fir­ing Ses­sions un­til after the midterms but 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.

White House chief of staff John Kelly called Ses­sions be­fore the pres­i­dent’s news con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day and asked for his res­ig­na­tion. Ses­sions’ un­dated res­ig­na­tion let­ter was then sent to the White House.

Asked whether Whi­taker would as­sume con­trol over Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Jus­tice De­part­ment spokes­woman Sarah Flores said Whi­taker would be “in charge of all mat­ters un­der the purview of the De­part­ment of Jus­tice.” The Jus­tice De­part­ment did not an­nounce a de­par­ture for Deputy At­tor­ney General Rod Rosen­stein, who ap­pointed Mueller and has closely over­seen his work.

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 for CNN, Whi­taker wrote: “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Rus­sia 2016 elec­tion med­dling in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is dan­ger­ously close to cross­ing.”

Democrats, in­clud­ing House Demo­cratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Se­nate Demo­cratic leader Chuck Schumer, im­me­di­ately called for Whi­taker to re­cuse him­self from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, cit­ing his pub­lic com­ments. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Demo­crat on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, said he wants “an­swers im­me­di­ately” and tweeted that “we will hold peo­ple ac­count­able.”

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 that his crime-fight­ing agenda and pri­or­i­ties — par­tic­u­larly his hawk­ish im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment poli­cies — largely mir­rored the pres­i­dent’s.

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 rift lin­gered, and Ses­sions, de­spite prais­ing the pres­i­dent’s agenda and hew­ing to his pri­or­i­ties, never man­aged to re­turn to Trump’s good graces.

The de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship be­came a soap opera stale­mate for the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump be­lit­tled Ses­sions but, per­haps fol­low­ing the ad­vice of aides, didn’t fire him. Ses­sions, for his part, proved de­ter­mined to re­main in the po­si­tion un­til dis­missed. A log­jam broke when Repub­li­can sen­a­tors who had backed Ses­sions sig­naled a will­ing­ness to con­sider a new at­tor­ney general.

In at­tacks de­liv­ered on Twit­ter, in per­son and in in­ter­views, Trump called Ses­sions weak and be­lea­guered, com­plained that he wasn’t more ag­gres­sively pur­su­ing al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against Demo­cratic ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton and called it “dis­grace­ful” that Ses­sions wasn’t more se­ri­ous in scru­ti­niz­ing the ori­gins of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion for pos­si­ble law en­force­ment bias — even though the at­tor­ney general did ask the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s in­spec­tor general to ex­am­ine those claims.

The broad­sides es­ca­lated in re­cent months, with Trump telling an in­ter­viewer that Ses­sions “never had con­trol” of the Jus­tice De­part­ment and ac­cus­ing him on Twit­ter of not pro­tect­ing Repub­li­can in­ter­ests by al­low­ing two GOP con­gress­men to be in­dicted be­fore the elec­tion.

Ses­sions en­dured most of the name-call­ing in si­lence, though he did is­sue two pub­lic state­ments de­fend­ing the de­part­ment, in­clud­ing one in which he said he would serve “with in­tegrity and honor” for as long as he was in the job.

Ses­sions, who likely sus­pected his ouster was im­mi­nent, was spot­ted by re­porters giv­ing some of his grand­chil­dren a tour of the White House over the week­end. He did not re­spond when asked why he was there.

The re­cusal from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion al­lowed Ses­sions to pur­sue con­ser­va­tive is­sues he had long cham­pi­oned as a se­na­tor, of­ten in iso­la­tion among fel­low Repub­li­cans.

He found sat­is­fac­tion in be­ing able to re­verse Obama-era poli­cies that con­ser­va­tives say flouted the will of Congress, in­clud­ing by en­cour­ag­ing pros­e­cu­tors to pur­sue the most se­ri­ous charges they could and by 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 since-aban­doned ad­min­is­tra­tion pol­icy that re­sulted in mi­grant par­ents be­ing sep­a­rated from their chil­dren at the bor­der.

His agenda un­set­tled lib­er­als who said that Ses­sions’ fo­cus on tough pros­e­cu­tions marked a re­turn to failed drug war tac­tics that un­duly hurt mi­nori­ties and the poor, and that his roll­backs of pro­tec­tions for gay and trans­gen­der peo­ple amount to dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Some Democrats also con­sid­ered Ses­sions too ea­ger to do Trump’s bid­ding and overly re­cep­tive to his griev­ances.

Ses­sions, for in­stance, di­rected se­nior pros­e­cu­tors to ex­am­ine po­ten­tial cor­rup­tion in a ura­nium field trans­ac­tion that some Repub­li­cans have said may have im­pli­cated Clin­ton in wrong­do­ing and ben­e­fited donors of the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion. He also fired one of the pres­i­dent’s pri­mary an­tag­o­nists, for­mer FBI Deputy Di­rec­tor An­drew McCabe, just be­fore he was to have re­tired — a move Trump hailed as a “great day for democ­racy.”

De­spite it all, Ses­sions never found him­self back in fa­vor with the pres­i­dent.

The prob­lems started after he told sen­a­tors dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that he had never met with Rus­sians dur­ing the cam­paign. The Jus­tice De­part­ment, re­spond­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post re­port, ac­knowl­edged that Ses­sions had ac­tu­ally had two en­coun­ters dur­ing the cam­paign with the then-Rus­sian am­bas­sador. He re­cused him­self the next day, say­ing it would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate to over­see an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a cam­paign he was part of.

The an­nounce­ment set off a frenzy in­side the White House, with Trump di­rect­ing his White House coun­sel to call Ses­sions be­fore­hand and urge him not to step aside. Ses­sions re­jected the en­treaty. Mueller’s team, which has in­ter­viewed Ses­sions, has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the pres­i­dent’s at­tacks on him and his de­mands to have a loy­al­ist in charge of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Ses­sions had been pro­tected for much of his ten­ure by the sup­port of Se­nate Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, who had said he would not sched­ule a con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for an­other at­tor­ney general if Trump fired him.

But that sup­port be­gan to fade, with Grass­ley sug­gest­ing over the sum­mer that he might have time for a hear­ing after all.

Whi­taker, an Iowa na­tive, pre­vi­ously served as U.S. At­tor­ney for the South­ern District of Iowa from 2004 un­til 2009. He man­aged a cou­ple of dozen at­tor­neys who pros­e­cute fed­eral crimes and rep­re­sent the govern­ment in civil mat­ters in half of Iowa.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

In this file photo, At­tor­ney General Jeff Ses­sions pauses while speak­ing to mem­bers of the me­dia dur­ing the daily brief­ing in the Brady Press Brief­ing Room of the White House in Wash­ing­ton. Ses­sions re­signed. as the coun­try’s chief law en­force­ment of­fi­cer after en­dur­ing more than a year of blis­ter­ing and per­sonal at­tacks from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over his re­cusal from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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