Donald Trump finally forces US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, ending a toxic relationship poisoned by Russia probe
- Their relationship has been strained since Sessions recused himself from the Russia collusion probe, creating worries that Trump may shut it down
- Matthew Whitaker, named by Trump as acting attorney general, previously warned that Robert Mueller’s Russia probe could become a ‘witch hunt’
Embattled US Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Wednesday at President Donald Trump’s request, ending the tenure of a loyalist he soured on shortly after Sessions took office in 2017 because the former senator from Alabama had recused himself from oversight of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Sessions’ departure has long been feared by Democrats who believe that his replacement could be pressured by Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and prematurely curtail the investigation.
Matthew G. Whitaker, named by Trump as the acting attorney general, will now take over from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in overseeing Mueller’s Russia probe.
Whitaker has gone on the record with his belief that Mueller would be going too far if he investigated the Trump family’s business affairs.
“This would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt,” he wrote in an opinion piece for CNN last November. Whitaker said Trump was “absolutely correct” when he said an investigation of his finances would represent a “violation”.
Despite the tension with the White House, Sessions had described the position of top law enforcement officer as his dream job and he pursued his conservative agenda with gusto.
But he also had to live with sometimes humiliating attacks from a president he couldn’t seem to please and the suspicions of career staff members who feared the politicisation of a Justice Department that prides itself on its independence.
“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions told Trump in a letter.
Trump said in a tweet he was pleased to announce Whitaker would be acting attorney general. Whitaker was Sessions’ chief of staff.
....We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
Department veterans have expressed concerns that Trump’s repeated public attacks on Sessions, the Justice Department and the FBI could cause lasting damage to federal law enforcement.
Sessions, 71, was the first US senator to endorse Trump, and in many ways he had been the biggest supporter of the president’s policies on immigration, crime and law enforcement.
But all of those areas of agreement were overshadowed by the Russia investigation – specifically, Sessions’ recusal from the inquiry after it was revealed that he had met more than once with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the 2016 campaign even though he had said during his confirmation hearing that he had not met with any Russians.
Trump’s relationship with Sessions became toxic, the president having never forgiven Sessions for that decision, which he regarded as an act of disloyalty that denied him the protection he thought he deserved from his attorney general. “I don’t have an attorney general,” he said in September.
Privately, Trump has derided Sessions as “Mr Magoo”, a cartoon character who is elderly, myopic and bumbling, according to people with whom he has spoken.
Trump also had repeatedly threatened or demanded Sessions’ ouster behind closed doors, only to be convinced by aides that removing him could provoke a political crisis within the Republican Party, where many conservatives stayed loyal to the former senator.
In recent months, however, some of those allies had signalled a willingness to tolerate Sessions’ removal after the midterm election.
Democrats have moved gingerly around Sessions – fearful that if he were driven from office, his replacement could curtail the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
A person close to Sessions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank, said the attorney general shared the president’s frustration with the pace of the Russia inquiry, and wished that it had been completed.
But Sessions also thought that by staying in the job, he had protected the integrity of the investigation, the person said.
In the long run, Sessions is convinced that the country will be better served by the investigation proceeding naturally, as the findings will be more credible to the American public, the person said.
Mueller is looking into Trump’s statements seeking to fire Sessions or force his resignation in an effort to determine whether those acts are part of a pattern of attempted obstruction of justice, according to people close to the investigation.
Earlier this year, Mueller’s team questioned witnesses about Trump’s private comments and state of mind in late July and early August of last year, around the time he belittled his “beleaguered” attorney general on Twitter, these people said.
The questions sought to determine whether the president’s goal was to oust Sessions so he could replace him with someone who would take control of the investigation, these people said.
Sessions usually does not respond to the president’s criticism, but he has at times pushed back.
After one particularly blistering tweet in February, in which the president said Sessions’ actions were “DISGRACEFUL!” he issued a statement: “As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honour, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.’’