Rattled by the outcome of midterm elections and worried by the approach of the Trump-Russia investigation, Donald Trump fires Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The dismissal sets up a possibly final confrontation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, initially hoping to contain the inquiry and then setting up Mueller’s dismissal.
Sessions was replaced with a Trump loyalist, Matthew Whitaker, a political activist and former US Attorney who has long called for the curbing of the investigation.
Whitaker has been Sessions’ Chief of Staff since autumn 2017. He takes over supervision of the inquiry from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Rosenstein had the role because Sessions was forced to recuse himself in March 2017, over his contacts during the 2016 Presidential campaign with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The Deputy Attorney General had resisted White House pressure to act against Mueller. Trump has publicly insulted Rosenstein and threatened to remove him, but has not acted. The right-wing “One America News Network”, a Trump ally, said Wednesday that Rosenstein will be fired next week, but there was no evidence for the claim.
For months, the White House had signalled that Sessions would be removed after Tuesday’s elections, in which Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, but the speed of yesterday’s dismissal caught many legislators and analysts by surprise.
The Attorney General’s undated letter of resignation appeared to have been prepared well before Wednesday. Sessions reportedly asked Chief of Staff John Kelly if he could stay until Friday, but was flatly turned down.
Shutting Down The “Witch Hunt”
Whitaker, a former Senate candidate in Iowa, has repeatedly questioned the scope of the inquiry. Last summer, he warned Mueller not to examine Trump’s finances: “This would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.”
His suggestion that the inquiry be curbed appears to be the immediate path now for Trump’s inner circle. The Acting Attorney General can restrict funds.
Perhaps even more importantly, he can veto any subpoena of Trump for questioning. Mueller’s team have negotiated for months with the Trump camp over the scope of any meeting and/or written response to the Special Counsel’s inquries.
The White House will likely dismiss a conflict of interest over Whitaker’s appointment.
Whitaker was campaign manager in 2014 for Sam Clovis, a candidate for Iowa State Treasurer. Clovis, a senior official in the 2016 Trump campaign, has been questioned by Mueller’s team.
An administration official said Whitaker has no immediate plans to speak or act about Mueller and the Russia inquiry.
Whitaker said in a Wednesday statement, “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.”