His temporary replacement, Matthew Whitaker, has expressed skepticism over the scope of the Russia investigation—which he’ll now oversee.
President Donald Trump has forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions just one day after the midterm elections and after nearly a year of berating him for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation. “At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions wrote in a letter to Trump on Wednesday afternoon. Sessions’s temporary replacement—his chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker—is now effectively special counsel Robert Mueller’s new boss, even though he has expressed skepticism over the scope of Mueller’s inquiry in the past.
Trump, who has been unsparing in publicly castigating his own Cabinet official, had been hinting that he would ask for Sessions’s resignation following the elections. Privately, Trump has reportedly called him an “idiot” and said that hiring him was a mistake. He first asked Sessions to resign following Mueller’s appointment to lead the probe in May 2017, according to The New York Times, but then wouldn’t accept his resignation.
Legal experts and political strategists who have either worked directly with the president or observed his behavior from afar attributed Trump’s reluctance to fire Sessions to two major considerations: fears in the White House that the move would cost the president support among GOP voters and members of Congress, who generally like and support Sessions, and the risk of provoking further allegations of obstruction of justice—both of which could deepen the challenges already facing the administration.
With the midterms out of the way, however, Trump evidently feels freer to overhaul his Cabinet, regardless of how it may be perceived by investigators who have been closely examining his behavior for signs of corrupt intent with regard to the Russia investigation over the last 18 months.
Whitaker will be the acting attorney general until a permanent replacement is nominated, Trump tweeted on Wednesday. Whitaker is not recused from matters related to Russia, and he’ll be overseeing the Mueller investigation directly in his new post. While he has touted Mueller’s character—“There is no honest person that sits in the world of politics, in the world of law, that can find anything wrong with Bob Mueller,” he told CNN last year—he seems to have already formed an opinion on the probe itself, raising immediate questions about whether he will try to limit it. In a tweet, Whitaker said an article that characterized Mueller’s investigators as a “lynch mob” was a “must read,” and told CNN last year that if Sessions were fired, his replacement could “reduce” Mueller’s budget to so low that his investigations grind almost to a halt.” He also shared an article on Twitter that explored the process by which Trump could fire Mueller.
Whitaker most clearly expressed his view of the Mueller probe in an op-ed last year, writing that Mueller’s inquiry had gone “too far,” and arguing that the president’s personal finances were a “red line” that the special counsel had come “dangerously close to crossing.” (Mueller subpoenaed the Trump Organization earlier this year, but it is not clear which documents his team had requested. Donald Trump Jr., an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, has also been telling friends in recent weeks that he expects to be indicted by Mueller, according to Politico. ) Whitaker added that “investigating Donald Trump's finances or his family's finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else. That goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel.”
In reality, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller a fairly broad mandate when he appointed him following Sessions’s recusal in May 2017: Mueller was free to investigate not only Russia’s election interference and potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, but "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" as well. Mueller has also been farming out aspects of the investigation to prosecutors in New York and Washington, D.C., that don’t fall squarely within his mandate. Moreover, intelligence and law-enforcement experts—as well as sitting members of Congress—have pointed out that the question of whether Russia has any kind of financial leverage over the president is highly relevant to determining whether Trump could have been coerced into conspiring with Moscow’s election interference in 2016. Indeed, several of the Justice Department and FBI officials who have investigated Trump’s campaign—and who have been attacked by Trump directly—have extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday, following Sessions’ resignation, that Whitaker “should recuse himself from” the Russia probe “for the duration of his time as acting attorney general” given his previous comments “advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation.” Congressional Democrats who are otherwise opposed to Sessions’s policies have long expressed concern that Trump would fire Sessions and replace him with someone willing to obstruct the Mueller probe. “While I have opposed many of the actions taken by Attorney General Sessions, it would be unacceptable for the president to fire him now in order to install someone willing to subvert the Mueller investigation,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement over the summer.
Trump’s move could still backfire. Without the administration’s protection, Sessions may now find himself both more vulnerable and more inclined to cooperate with Mueller, who has been investigating a period last summer when Trump privately discussed firing Sessions and attacked him in a series of tweets. Sessions’s conversations during the campaign with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos have also been closely scrutinized by the special counsel, and at one point, the FBI opened an investigation into whether Sessions perjured himself in congressional testimony when he said he had no contact with Russians during the campaign.
Sessions has mostly laid low in the face of the president’s taunts, but has not shied away from defending himself when necessary. “I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in,” he said in August. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action.”