Jeff Sessions has finally been forced out his job as Attorney General. Sessions has been under attack by Trump for months for everything from his decision to recuse himself from handling the Mueller investigation to stopping Justice Department leaks to failing to prosecute Trump’s political opponents. Sessions was asked to resign by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Sessions’ Chief of Staff Matthew G. Whitaker will take over the Justice Department as Acting Attorney General and will reportedly be overseeing the Mueller investigation, despite not being confirmed by the Senate yet.
We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
....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
This will most likely be trouble for the Mueller investigation, as Whitaker has written in the past the Mueller has gone too far in the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible involvement, even going so far as to echo the president’s claims that it’s a “witch hunt.” (Unlike Sessions, Whitaker is not recused from overseeing investigations into the Trump campaign’s activities during the 2016 election, but ethic officials are reportedly looking into the matter.)
Whitaker wouldn’t need to fire Mueller or stop the investigation in order to thwart the inquiry, he could limit its scope, slow-walk it, and/or deny Mueller resources required for a thorough investigation. Any of those scenarios are probably more plausible than an outright firing of Mueller or a halting of the investigation.
For one, Whitaker has suggested that as a course of action before.
Good catch by @AaronBlake : Whitaker, appearing on TV last year, mused about a situation in which the "attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” https://t.co/5GRn5OFOEp— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 7, 2018
Trump on the Mueller investigation: "They're wasting a lot of money, but I let it go on." He says he could end it right now but doesn't wanna.— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 7, 2018
Finally, hamstringing the investigation rather than halting it has the benefit of giving cover to the many Republicans who have insisted the probe should be completed, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The investigation, limited in scope or without proper resources, would technically still be underway, but progress would slow to a crawl.
Whatever the strategy, this latest move represents the most brazen step in a slow-motion political purge of the Justice Department by President Trump. It’s reminiscent of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” when the embattled president tried to fire his Attorney General after he refused to halt the Watergate probe. FBI Director James Comey, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Sally Yates, and now Jeff Sessions—all Justice Department officials Trump criticized for not carrying out his partisan wishes—have been fired.
Mueller is currently investigating whether Trump’s firing of James Comey constituted obstruction of justice. In an interview with NBC immediately after Comey’s ouster, Trump indicated the Russia probe was the reason, saying, “I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. . . . when I decided to just do it, I said to myself—you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
This unprecedented move also comes on the heels of a Politico story reporting President Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has told friends he expects to be indicted by Mueller soon.
At a typically unhinged press conference earlier today, Trump promised retribution against the incoming Democratic House majority should they engage in their Constitutional duty of overseeing the Executive branch.
Trump warns House Dems that Republicans will investigate them if they try to investigate against him: "They can play that game, but we can play it better. Because we have a thing called the United States Senate. And a lot of very questionable things were done."— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) November 7, 2018
This represents a full-blown Constitutional crisis and it’s one that Republicans in both the House and Senate have the opportunity to remedy during the lame duck session, or in the next Congress. They won’t. They’ll continue to shrug or shuffle their feet as we keep hurtling toward banana republic territory. Should the question of whether Trump can effectively stymie an investigation of himself come to the Supreme Court, the new conservative majority could very well provide cover.
Trump could potentially get away with everything he’s alleged to have done and we may never even know the true extent of his malfeasance.
Lead image via Gage Skidmore.