Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Wednesday at President 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 G. Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions’s 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 could be reviewed by ethics officials. Because Sessions was recused, the special counsel probe had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who also has had strained relations with Trump, but is considered safe in his position for the moment. Rosenstein was headed to the White House Wednesday afternoon for what an official said was a pre-scheduled meeting.
Though Sessions’s 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 S. Mueller III.
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.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), 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.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, and Josh Dawsey