Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed to resign on Wednesday, sending shockwaves through Washington less than 24 hours after voters delivered a House majority to Democrats in the midterm elections.
President Trump replaced Sessions with Justice chief of staff Matthew Whitaker, who will immediately take over from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s election meddling.
The removal of Sessions had been rumored for months, though the announcement was a bit of a surprise, particularly after Trump dodged questions about the attorney general during a White House news conference earlier in the day.
Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump for president and once a key ally, made it clear that he was leaving on the president’s orders.
“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions wrote in his letter.
“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as Attorney General of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country. I have done so to the best of my ability, working to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.”
Rosenstein appointed Mueller to investigate the 2016 election, including possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey in the spring of 2017. Sessions had already recused himself from overseeing issues surrounding Russia because of meetings he had, while working for Trump’s campaign, with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
The president, who prizes loyalty in his subordinates, saw the Sessions recusal as the ultimate betrayal, and repeatedly and personally criticized his attorney general over the decision, mocking him as “Mr. Magoo” and reportedly making fun of his Southern accent in private.
In a September interview with Hill.TV, Trump faulted Sessions over his recusal, stating: “I don’t have an attorney general.”
“It’s obvious that there was an irreparable breakdown in the relationship between the president and Sessions. I think that obviously got much worse following the appointment of the special counsel,” said Ian Prior, who until recently worked as a Justice Department spokesman under Sessions. “This is not something that people are going to be completely surprised about, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to be happy about it.”
Trump had also criticized Rosenstein at times over the Mueller probe, and the deputy attorney general had come under GOP fire after a report that he had discussed wearing a wire to secretly record Trump as part of a possible effort to remove him from office. Rosenstein denied the report.
Sessions’s removal triggered swift backlash from Democrats and other critics, who immediately saw an effort to quash Mueller’s probe, which the president has frequently criticized as a political “witch hunt” against him.
“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,” said Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “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.”
Republicans offered muted reaction to the news, praising Sessions, himself a former senator, for his service but largely withholding any reproach of the president.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has at times criticized Trump, wrote on Twitter that it is “imperative” the administration does not “impede” Mueller’s investigation and expressed concern that Rosenstein would no longer be overseeing the probe.
“It’s not up to me, Manu, to tell the president who to put in the Cabinet. They serve at his pleasure,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told CNN’s Manu Raju on Wednesday morning, before Sessions’s departure was announced. “If he makes changes, we’ll be dealing with whoever is sent up.”
The Justice Department said Whitaker, who criticized the very idea of a special counsel probe in an op-ed for The Hill, will now assume oversight as acting attorney general.
A former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa during the George W. Bush administration and one-time Senate candidate, Whitaker is viewed as a potential ally for the president in his critique of the Russia investigation.
Before joining the Trump administration, Whitaker penned an op-ed for CNN in which he argued Mueller’s investigation had gone “too far” after reports that the special counsel was probing the president’s financial records. The op-ed echoes much of the president’s own rhetoric used to characterize the Russia probe, raising concerns of it being a “witch hunt” that is damaging to the country.
Democrats have argued that Whitaker should recuse himself from the investigation, citing his past comments.
It is unclear who Trump will ultimately appoint to replace Sessions. He said Wednesday a permanent replacement would be nominated “at a later date.” It is possible that Trump may ultimately tap Whitaker, once rumored as a potential replacement for Rosenstein amid whispers of his own ouster, as a permanent occupant for the post.
Any nominee is likely to face a contentious confirmation battle, though the larger post-midterm Republican majority in the upper chamber makes it likely that the nomination would go through.
Sessions is among a flurry of top officials who have exited the Trump administration over the past two years. He joins former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, two White House national security advisers and most recently U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in his departure.
It is possible Sessions’s exit could foretell other departures or firings. The president acknowledged earlier Wednesday that he was likely to make changes in his Cabinet, though he described it as common practice following an election.
“We’re looking at a lot of different things, including Cabinet. I’m very happy with most of my Cabinet. We’re looking at different people for different positions,” Trump said at a news conference in the East Room. “You know, it’s very common after the midterms. I didn’t want to do anything before the midterms.”