Trump pushes out Sessions as AG, picks loyalist to replace him
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 investi- gation. 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 recused 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 of the administration and degenerated into one of the most acrimonious public standoffs between a commander-in-chief and a senior Cabinet member in modern U.S. history.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, called Sessions before his postelection 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.
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.
The deputy attorney general, now 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.
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 former college football player and U.S. attorney, Whitaker has been a frequent White House visitor and served as what one White House aide called a “balm” on the relationship between the president and the Justice Department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Wednesday at President Donald Trump's request.