Trump has just seized the reins on the Mueller probe

The Telegraph (Macon) - - Opinion - BY PHILIP BUMP

Few Cabi­net mem­bers have had as con­tentious a re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dents they serve as did Jeff Ses­sions, at­tor­ney gen­eral un­til ap­prox­i­mately 13 hours af­ter the last polls closed in the 2018 midterm elec­tions. Ses­sions en­dured Pres­i­dent Trump’s fre­quent cri­tiques on Twit­ter and was the tar­get of Trump’s frus­tra­tion both in in­ter­views and in West Wing con­ver­sa­tions that were later re­ported by the me­dia.

The pri­mary rea­son for Trump’s ir­ri­ta­tion was Ses­sions’ de­ci­sion in March of last year to re­cuse him­self from the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That re­cusal stemmed from a rec­om­men­da­tion by Jus­tice Depart­ment at­tor­neys, who noted Ses­sions’ in­volve­ment in Trump’s 2016 cam­paign posed a po­ten­tial con­flict with an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into that cam­paign. For Trump, though, the re­cusal was a be­trayal that left him ex­posed. Trump ap­par­ently hoped for an at­tor­ney gen­eral as loyal to his per­sonal in­ter­ests as Robert Kennedy was ( per Trump’s as­sess­ment) when he served in his brother’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ses­sions should have told him he planned to re­cuse, Trump said on more than one oc­ca­sion, and then Trump would not have picked him in the first place.

Ses­sions’s de­par­ture changes that cal­cu­lus dra­mat­i­cally.

It is un­clear how close the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion is to be­ing com­pleted, much less the arm of that probe run by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller which is look­ing at any over­lap with Trump’s cam­paign. There are signs it is near­ing com­ple­tion – but that could mean we are on the brink of sub­stan­tial rev­e­la­tions or in­dict­ments.

In other words, there may still be good rea­son for Trump to want to cur­tail Mueller’s work. With Ses­sions gone, that be­came much eas­ier in two ways.

When Trump tweeted news about Ses­sions’ de­par­ture, he said the act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral would be Matt Whi­taker, pre­vi­ously Ses­sions’s chief of staff. As The Post’s Aaron Blake noted, Whi- taker of­fered his opin­ion about the Mueller probe shortly be­fore be­ing hired by Ses­sions: broadly echo­ing Trump’s rhetoric about the need to wind down the probe and, per­haps more im­por­tantly, de­fend­ing Don­ald Trump Jr.’s in­volve­ment in a meet­ing with a Krem­lin-linked at­tor­ney at Trump Tower in June 2016.

So what could a new Jus­tice Depart­ment head hos­tile to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion do? A lot. Ear­lier this year, we spoke with Louis Sei­d­man, Car­mack Water­house pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, who out­lined the ways in which Mueller’s wings could be clipped.

The main lever­age that per­son gains:

“First and fore­most, who­ever is the Depart­ment of Jus­tice staffer over­see­ing the probe is granted the power to ‘re­quest that the Spe­cial Coun­sel pro­vide an ex­pla­na­tion for any in­ves­tiga­tive or pros­e­cu­to­rial step, and may af­ter re­view con­clude that the ac­tion is so in­ap­pro­pri­ate or un­war­ranted un­der es­tab­lished De­part­men­tal prac­tices that it should not be pur­sued.’ In other words, if Mueller wants to bring for­ward a new in­dict­ment, the per­son in charge at DOJ could nix it.

“They could also go fur­ther.

“‘De­pend­ing on how ag­gres­sive this per­son wanted to be, they could dis­miss the crim­i­nal cases, they could get rid of the grand jury,’ Sei­d­man said at the time. ‘In the end, if Trump is de­ter­mined, the peo­ple he ap­points could shut (the probe) down.’”

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