Sessions ousted with questions looming
Trump bypasses Rosenstein, names Whitaker to oversee Mueller probe
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired Wednesday, leaving a host of questions about what comes next for the ongoing special counsel probe, criminal justice and immigration enforcement.
Formally, Mr. Sessions resigned, but the move came at President Trump’s request less than 24 hours after the midterm elections.
Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he had named Matthew G. Whitaker, the department’s chief of staff, to become acting attorney general, leapfrogging Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“He will serve our country well,” the president said of Mr. Whitaker. “We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
Democrats said the move to oust Mr. Sessions could precipitate a constitutional crisis because it could be seen as an effort to derail special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential election, Russian meddling and Trump campaign figures’ behavior.
Mr. Rosenstein had been overseeing that investigation after Mr. Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters, but Mr. Whitaker will now take charge.
In a statement, the acting attorney general called his post “a true honor.”
“I am committed to leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law and seeks justice for all Americans,” he said.
Prior to joining the Justice Department, Mr. Whitaker served as a U.S. attorney and politician in Iowa.
Last year, he wrote a column for CNN complaining about the Mueller investigation and suggesting ways the president could shut it down without firing the special counsel.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself because of those comments and leave the Mueller investigation in Mr. Rosenstein’s hands.
Other Democrats demanded that Congress approve legislation to protect Mr. Mueller from being fired or having his jurisdiction limited.
“Acting Attorney General Whitaker has made his intentions clear to do the
president’s bidding and stop Mueller. This move could lead our nation into a constitutional confrontation,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Mr. Schumer’s top lieutenant.
Mr. Sessions had been on thin ice for 18 months, dating back to his recusal from Russia matters and then from Mr. Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mr. Mueller as special counsel.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly referred to the investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
The president did not call Mr. Sessions to ask for his resignation, according to a source. Instead, that call was made by the president’s chief of staff, Gen. John F. Kelly.
The deputy attorney general typically would replace an outgoing attorney general, but Mr. Trump invoked the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to pass over Mr. Rosenstein, who has also clashed with the president, and to select Mr. Whitaker.
With the Republicans losing the House majority on Tuesday, Democrats have already threatened hearings on Mr. Trump’s decision to place Mr. Whitaker at the Justice Department’s helm.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who is set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted a promise to hold Mr. Trump accountable. “Americans must have answers immediately,” he said.
During a press conference before the Sessions resignation, Mr. Trump again disparaged the Mueller investigation but signaled that he wouldn’t force it to end.
“I could fire everybody right now,” he said. “But I don’t want to stop it. Politically, I don’t like stopping it.”
He did not telegraph the looming Sessions decision during the press conference, yet he has been saying as recently as September that his attorney general would be out of office after the midterm elections.
The first sitting senator to endorse Mr. Trump’s candidacy in 2016, Mr. Sessions became a frequent punching bag for the president’s frustration with the Mueller investigation. Mr. Trump publicly fumed over Mr. Sessions’ recusal and called his attorney general “an idiot” and “disgraceful.” He said he would not have picked Mr. Sessions for the Justice Department position if he had known beforehand that the attorney general would recuse himself.
He complained that the Justice Department’s criminal prosecutions of two Republican House members could hurt the party’s chance to maintain the majority. Both of those Republicans appear to have won their races Tuesday, though Republicans lost the House majority.
Mr. Sessions submitted his resignation last year shortly after the special counsel was appointed, but Mr. Trump refused to accept it — though he also continued to mock his attorney general.
The fractured relationship came to a head in August when Mr. Trump told Fox News that Mr. Sessions failed to take control of corruption at the Justice Department. He said Mr. Sessions was attorney general only because of his loyalty to the presidential campaign.
In a rare rebuke of Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions issued a statement saying he would not be “improperly influenced” by political pressures.
Mr. Sessions defended his tenure in the resignation letter.
“We have restored and upheld the rule of law — a glorious tradition that each of us has a responsibility to safeguard,” Mr. Sessions wrote. “We have operated with integrity and have lawfully and aggressively advanced the policy agenda of this administration.
Mr. Sessions had overturned the Obama administration’s prosecution rules, sued sanctuary cities, poured resources into fighting the opioid epidemic, backed up the president’s tough talk on violent crime and even shaped antitrust policies in line with Mr. Trump’s campaign promises.
Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III called Mr. Sessions one of the best Justice Department chiefs in history.
“He’s restored the department to its basic role as a machine of criminal justice as well as being a champion of liberty,” he said. “He has made sure the department returned to the path of constitutional fidelity, changing the position of the government on a number of constitutional issues that he went on to win in the Supreme Court.”
Although Mr. Whitaker appears to be an unabashed conservative based on his failed bid for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, it is unclear how many of Mr. Sessions’ policies he will pursue.
Mr. Sessions’ ouster also fueled questions about the future of Mr. Rosenstein. He was at the White House for a previously scheduled meeting Wednesday afternoon after Mr. Whitaker was named acting attorney general.
Mr. Rosenstein has also been a frequent target of the president’s ire. Yet Mr. Trump passed on a chance to get rid of him after The New York Times reported in September that Mr. Rosenstein discussed secretly recording the president and invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
The two talked aboard Air Force One in October, after which Mr. Trump said he had no plans to fire Mr. Rosenstein and that their relationship was positive.
FIRED: Jeff Sessions gave President Trump his letter of resignation “at your request” after enduring blistering and personal attacks for more than a year.
Jeff Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016, but he became a punching bag for the president’s frustration with his recusal and with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement.