At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ses­sions forced out


WASH­ING­TON — At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions re­signed on Wed­nes­day at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­quest, end­ing the ten­ure of a be­lea­guered loy­al­ist whose re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent was ru­ined when Ses­sions re­cused him­self from con­trol of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

In a let­ter to Trump, Ses­sions wrote he had been “hon­ored to serve as At­tor­ney Gen­eral” and had “worked to im­ple­ment the law en­force­ment agenda based on the rule of law that formed a cen­tral part of your cam­paign for the pres­i­dency.” Trump tweeted that Ses­sions would be re­placed on an act­ing ba­sis by Matthew Whi­taker, who had been serv­ing as Ses­sions’ chief of staff.

“We thank At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions for his ser­vice, and wish him well!” Trump tweeted. “A per­ma­nent re­place­ment will be nom­i­nated at a later date.”

A Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cial said Whi­taker would as­sume au­thor­ity over the spe­cial coun­sel probe into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion – though his role will be sub­ject to the nor­mal re­view process for con­flicts. Be­cause Ses­sions was re­cused, the spe­cial coun­sel probe had been over­seen by Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, who also has had strained re­la­tions with Trump, but is con­sid­ered safe in his po­si­tion for the mo­ment. Rosen­stein went to the White House Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon for what an of­fi­cial said was a pre-sched­uled meet­ing.

Though Ses­sions’ re­moval was long ex­pected, the in­stal­la­tion of Whi­taker sparked fears that the pres­i­dent might be try­ing to ex­ert con­trol over the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by Robert Mueller.

A le­gal com­men­ta­tor be­fore he came into the Jus­tice De­part­ment, Whi­taker had mused pub­licly about how a Ses­sions re­place­ment might re­duce Mueller’s bud­get “so low that his in­ves­ti­ga­tion grinds to al­most a halt.” He also wrote in a Septem­ber 2017 col­umn that Mueller had “come up to a red line in the Rus­sia 2016 elec­tion-med­dling in­ves­ti­ga­tion that he is dan­ger­ously close to cross­ing,” af­ter CNN re­ported that the spe­cial coun­sel could be look­ing into Trump and his as­so­ci­ates’ fi­nan­cial ties to Rus­sia.

Democrats and oth­ers is­sued state­ments Wed­nes­day urg­ing that Mueller be left do to his work and vow­ing to in­ves­ti­gate whether Ses­sions’s ouster was meant to in­ter­fere with the spe­cial coun­sel. Come Jan­uary, Democrats will have sub­poena power, hav­ing re­taken the House in Tues­day’s midterm elec­tions.

“Congress must now in­ves­ti­gate the real rea­son for this ter­mi­na­tion, con­firm that Act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker is re­cused from all as­pects of the Spe­cial Coun­sel’s probe, and en­sure that the De­part­ment of Jus­tice safe­guards the in­tegrity of the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” said Rep. Eli­jah Cummings, D-Md., the rank­ing mem­ber of the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form.

Sen. Mark Warner of Vir­ginia, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment, “No one is above the law and any ef­fort to in­ter­fere with the Spe­cial Coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion would be a gross abuse of power by the Pres­i­dent. While the Pres­i­dent may have the au­thor­ity to re­place the At­tor­ney Gen­eral, this must not be the first step in an at­tempt to im­pede, ob­struct or end the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Sen­a­tor-elect Mitt Rom­ney, R-Utah, tweeted that it was “im­per­a­tive” Mueller’s work be al­lowed to con­tinue unim­peded.

A spokesman for the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment.

A per­son close to Ses­sions, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to be frank, said the at­tor­ney gen­eral shared the pres­i­dent’s frus­tra­tion with the pace of the Rus­sia in­quiry, and wished that it had been com­pleted. But Ses­sions also thought that by stay­ing in the job, he had pro­tected the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s in­tegrity, the per­son said. In the long run, Ses­sions is con­vinced that the coun­try will be bet­ter served by the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­ceed­ing nat­u­rally, as the find­ings will be more cred­i­ble to the Amer­i­can pub­lic, the per­son said.

Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials had been brac­ing for Ses­sions’ ouster. He told con­fi­dants ear­lier this week that he ex­pected Trump to fire him or push him out soon af­ter the midterm elec­tions, and friends urged himp to quit and con­sider run­ning again for a Se­nate seat in Alabama. Still, some se­nior lead­ers at the Jus­tice De­part­ment were shocked to hear the news Wed­nes­day.

Ses­sions re­ceived a phone call Wed­nes­day morn­ing from White House Chief of Staffp John Kelly – be­fore the pres­i­dent held a news con­fer­ence to dis­cuss the midterm elec­tion re­sults – telling him the pres­i­dent wanted Ses­sions to re­sign, an ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

Ses­sions sought to stay on the job at least un­til the end of the week, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sion. Kelly firmly re­jected that sugges­tion, in­sist­ing Wed­nes­day would be his last day, the peo­ple said. Ses­sions canceled meet­ings and sched­uled one for later in the day, where he would say good­bye to his staff.

A White House of­fi­cial said Trump had been held at bay to de­mand Ses­sions’ res­ig­na­tion un­til af­ter the elec­tion, but he talked ea­gerly about oust­ing his at­tor­ney gen­eral as soon as the votes were tal­lied. Even as elec­tion re­sults were com­ing in, Trump com­plained about Ses­sions and said he hoped Repub­li­cans would win a large enough mar­gin in Se­nate that he could fire the at­tor­ney gen­eral quickly, a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said.

An­other per­son said other Cab­i­net of­fi­cials also were in jeop­ardy.

In a mat­ter of hours, Ses­sions was out, and Whi­taker was in. About 150 Jus­tice De­part­ment em­ploy­ees gath­ered in the Jus­tice De­part­ment court­yard Wed­nes­day evening to bid farewell to the at­tor­ney gen­eral. The crowd clapped for him, and he waved good­bye and gave a thumbs-up be­fore en­ter­ing a black gov­ern­ment SUV that drove him away. Ses­sions shook Whi­taker’s hand be­fore de­part­ing.

The White House of­fi­cial said the pres­i­dent liked Whi­taker, who was a “back­slap­ping, foot­ball kind of guy” who had briefed Trump on many oc­ca­sions.

“The pres­i­dent never wanted to see Jeff. So a lot of other peo­ple at DOJ got to see the pres­i­dent,” the per­son said.

Whi­taker, a for­mer at­tor­ney who ran an un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign for a Se­nate seat in Iowa, played foot­ball at the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa. In 2014, he chaired the cam­paign of Sam Clo­vis, a Repub­li­can can­di­date for Iowa state trea­surer. That might present an­other po­ten­tial ethics com­pli­ca­tion for Whi­taker’s su­per­vi­sion of the spe­cial coun­sel; Clo­vis went on to work as a Trump cam­paign ad­viser and has be­come a wit­ness in Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials said Whi­taker will fol­low the reg­u­lar process for re­view­ing pos­si­ble eth­i­cal con­flicts as he as­sumes the new job of the na­tion’s top law en­force­ment of­fi­cial. That process in­volves Jus­tice De­part­ment ethics lawyers re­view­ing an of­fi­cial’s past work to see if there are any fi­nan­cial or per­sonal con­flicts that pre­clude them from be­ing in­volved in spe­cific cases.

The Jus­tice De­part­ment ad­vises em­ploy­ees that “gen­er­ally, an em­ployee should seek ad­vice from an ethics of­fi­cial be­fore par­tic­i­pat­ing in any mat­ter in which her im­par­tial­ity could be ques­tioned.”

Wash­ing­ton Post photo by Jabin Botsford

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions re­signed on Wed­nes­day at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­quest.

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