WASHINGTON — Less than 24 hours after Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, Attorney General Jeff Sessions became the first casualty of President Trump’s post-election cabinet purge. Sessions announced his decision to quit on Wednesday.
“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” he wrote.
Trump said in a tweet that a permanent replacement for Sessions would be nominated “at a later date.” Sessions’ departure could pave the way for a new attorney general who would place restrictions on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any Trump associates conspired with the Kremlin. A new AG could even decide to shut down that investigation entirely.
But before that changeover happens, Sessions’ temporary replacement, Matthew Whitaker, could do plenty of damage. Whitaker, who was Sessions’ chief of staff, will now serve as acting attorney general, a role in which he will oversee the Mueller investigation, according to the Justice Department.
Before he went to work for Sessions, Whitaker led a nonprofit group funded with conservative dark money that often attacked Hillary Clinton. In a 2016 op-ed, Whitaker argued that Clinton should’ve been indicted and faced prosecution for her use of personal email while serving as secretary of state.
More recently, Whitaker criticized Special Counsel Mueller’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation. He wrote a CNN op-ed last year that criticized the Mueller investigation for “going too far” and urging Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has overseen the probe up to this point after Sessions’ recusal, to rein it in. Like Trump, Whitaker argued that Mueller was overstepping his authority by potentially investigating the personal finances of the president and his family. “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing,” he wrote.
During an appearance on CNN, he offered several theories about how the Trump administration could limit the scope of the Mueller probe. One theory involved Trump pressuring Rosenstein directly to “cut the budget of Bob Mueller and do something a little more stage-crafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him.” But firing Sessions — as Trump has now done — was also an option, Whitaker added. “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller,” he said, “but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
And in a tweet from his personal account, Whitaker promoted an August 2017 op-ed by another lawyer that referred to the Mueller investigation as a “lynch mob”:
— Matt Whitaker 🇺🇸 (@MattWhitaker46) August 7, 2017
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the likely incoming chairman of the oversight and government reform committee next year, said in a statement that Congress should investigate the circumstances of Sessions’ resignation while demanding that Whitaker does not gain control over the Mueller probe. “There are many, many reasons to remove Attorney General Sessions — from his failure to disclose his communications with the Russians to his inhumane policy of separating children from their parents at the border — but one reason that is not acceptable is to interfere with or obstruct the Mueller investigation,” Cummings said. “President Trump waited until just hours after the midterm elections to make this move, which had been rumored for months. 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.”
Sessions’ tenure as attorney general will be remembered as doomed from the start. The former Alabama senator made the decision to recuse after he misled the Senate during his 2017 confirmation hearings to be attorney general by neglecting to mention contacts he’d had with Russian officials in his role as a Trump campaign adviser. He faced repeated scorn and ridicule from Trump for his recusal decision, with the president calling him “beleaguered” and ripping him for not investigating right-wing memes such as “Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations.” The animosity between the two men hit a boiling point in June when Trump fired off his nastiest tweet yet about Sessions:
The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself…I would have quickly picked someone else. So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined…and Sessions knew better than most that there was No Collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
Read Sessions’ resignation letter:
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) November 7, 2018