With new Justice official, fate of Russia probe in question

With new Justice official, fate of Russia probe in question
How the resignation of Jeff Sessions may jeopardize Muellers Russia probe
The resignation of U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions could significantly curtail — or perhaps even end — the Russia investigation, experts say, as it will now be overseen by a replacement who has publicly expressed his skepticism about the probe.

"[This] will effectively bring the investigation to a halt," said William Yeomans, who served 26 years at the U.S. Department of Justice and was a former chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Trump fires Sessions, transfers oversight of Mueller probe in wake of midterms

Sessions's former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, will be taking over as acting attorney general, with a permanent replacement expected to be nominated at a later date. 

Without Sessions campaign or Russia entanglements, theres no legal reason Whitaker couldnt immediately oversee the probe. And since Sessions technically resigned instead of forcing the White House to fire him, he opened the door under federal law to allowing the president to choose his successor instead of simply elevating Rosenstein, said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.

Whats next for the Mueller probe? Imminent charges and indictments are possible, experts say

The imminent departure was expected, as Sessions has been repeatedly criticized by Donald Trump for recusing himself from any investigation into potential Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The resignation, in a one-page letter to Trump, came one day after Republicans lost control of the House and was the first of several expected post-midterms Cabinet and White House departures. Though Sessions was an early and prominent campaign backer of Trump, his departure letter lacked effusive praise for the president and made clear the resignation came "at your request."

Trump blamed that decision for opening the door to the appointment of Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who ultimately took on the Russia investigation, and has since been examining, among other things, whether Trump's hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct justice.

Muellers grand jury has heard testimony for months about Trump confidant Roger Stone and what advance knowledge he may have had about Russian hacking of Democratic emails. Muellers team also has been pressing for an interview with Trump. And the department is expected to receive a confidential report of Muellers findings, though its unclear how much will be public.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller to his broad mandate about a year and a half ago, has overseen the probe's work ever since.

The move Wednesday has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Muellers probe given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, until now Sessions chief of staff, has questioned the inquirys scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the investigation.

When asked whether Whitaker would now assume control over the Mueller investigation, U.S. Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Flores said Whitaker would be "in charge of all matters" under the purview of the department.

That left Whitaker in charge, at least for now, though Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said he should recuse himself because of his comments on the probe. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants "answers immediately" and "we will hold people accountable."

"It seems as if the supervision of that investigation now rests with Whitaker," said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York.

Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa who twice ran unsuccessfully for statewide office and founded a law firm with other Republican Party activists, once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Muellers probe.

But questions remain around whether Rosenstein will agree to that, he said, noting there could be some kind of dispute over who has the authority to oversee the probe.

Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until after the midterms, but he told confidants in recent weeks that he wanted Sessions out as soon as possible after the elections, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

Video: See Jeff Sessions leave DOJ after firing

"It does seem as if the intention is that Whitaker will now oversee it — and that he, unlike Sessions, will not recuse himself," Sandick said. "And therefore whatever else Rosenstein may do as the deputy attorney general, it won't include this investigation."

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from U.S. President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsels Russia investigation.

Ironically, Whitaker once opined about a situation in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller's probe in an op-ed for CNN.

"Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing," Whitaker wrote.

The president deflected questions about Sessions expected departure at a White House news conference Wednesday. He did not mention that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Sessions beforehand to ask for his resignation. The undated letter was then sent to the White House.

According to Sandick, Whitaker's comments questioning the scope of the Mueller investigation "seemed to have played a central role in his selection" as acting attorney general.

“While there may not yet be definitive proof that the Trump campaign or its associates engaged in criminal collusion with Russia, there are legitimate questions regarding whether the president and those close to him worked with or alongside the Russians in their efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, questions that demand answers.”

"And it's hard to believe that his appointment isn't meant to impact the direction and existence, perhaps, of that investigation," he said.

“In fact, there is already enough evidence of this potential ‘collusion’ crime to warrant a searching review of those events, including the fact that within hours of the Russian offer of ‘dirt’ regarding Hillary Clinton in June 2016, Mr. Trump announced a major speech promising revelations about his opponent,” they wrote.

U.S. attorney general recuses himself from Russia investigationsTrump steps up attacks after Sessions says Justice Dept. won't be 'improperly influenced'Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and expert on federal judicial selection, said a good case can be made that Whitaker has a conflict of interest in the Russia probe, that he has already prejudged the matter and that he has no authority to end it because he's only in the position of acting attorney general.

Stone, who himself has predicted that he could be indicted, has admitted to exchanging messages with “Guccifer 2.0,” an apparent hacker who Mueller has alleged was acting as a front for Russian intelligence workers who had stolen emails from members of the Democratic Party and leaked them, The Guardian reported.

"I just don't see how that responsibility falls to him," he said. "[The Justice Department] may take that position, and maybe it's a valid position, but it doesn't sound like it is to me from what I understand of … how this particular investigation has been carried out and authorized."

Trump’s side has maintained that the meeting didn’t result in any serious dirt being dished on Clinton, but the gathering continues to form the focal point of the Russian controversy because it’s illegal for any U.S. campaign to take help from foreign governments or individuals.

The special counsel is required to inform the attorney general of any major steps in the investigation, but the attorney general has the authority to scuttle those steps.

They noted that Mueller has brought 191 charges against 35 people and companies in connection with allegations that Russians and Russian entities took part in conspiracies to hack the emails and computers of Trump adversaries and released information on them as part of a disinformation campaign.

That could include a gradual process of slowing things down, said Yeomans, by not allowing Mueller to interview a particular witness, issue a subpoena, put somebody before a grand jury, or even seek a grand jury indictment.

"Whitaker obviously has the authority to make it virtually impossible for Mueller to carry on his investigation," he said.

Whitaker could also order a freeze on any charging decisions until he has a chance to consider what he thinks the scope of the investigation should be, Sandick said. He could insist that he be given notice and an opportunity to approve or reject any charging decisions.

"Do we have reason to think that his judgment would be different from the judgment shown by Rosenstein? Sure it's possible," he said.

Sessions's resignation sparked an outcry from Democrats, who demanded Wednesday that Trump guarantee the Mueller probe would be protected. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants "answers immediately," raising speculation that the committee could launch an investigation into Trump's actions.

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

More recently, Mueller’s probe expanded its list of Stone associates it has questioned to nine, the latest being David Lugo, a filmmaker who interviewed the political operator for a documentary titled “Sensational,” NBC News reported.

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Jeff Sessions returns to his home in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Sessions was pushed out Wednesday as Attorney General after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump over his recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions told the president in a one-page letter that he was submitting his resignation at your request.

Earlier this week, completely out of nowhere and unrelated to the midterm elections at all, reports began to surface that Donald Trump—who on Monday was ready to slap tariffs on every single Chinese import—had suddenly reached some kind of breakthrough with Beijing. On Thursday, the president tweeted that hed had a long and very good conversation with President Xi Jinping, with a heavy emphasis on trade, and indicated things were moving along nicely. Later that night, articles appeared claiming Trump wants to reach an agreement on trade with Xi when they meet at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina, and that hed asked key U.S. officials to begin drafting potential terms, according to four people familiar with the matter, and on Friday, the South China Morning Post reported that Trump had changed his travel plans to accomodate a meeting plus dinner with Xi, a sign, according to one source, that he was keen to reach a deal. All of this would obviously be very good, nay, great news given that markets are increasingly worried about a full-blown trade war and that, so far, the outcome of Trumps tariffs-spree has involved layoffs for American workers, U.S. companies shifting production abroad, bailout-necessitating losses for farmers in Trump country, and the potential for thousands of new jobs in China.

Donald Trump has fired Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and also handed oversight of special counsel Robert Muellers investigation into Russian election hacking to a political staffer who has previously called for Mr. Mueller to be reined in.

Vice President Mike Pence issued a statement condemning the attacks and thanking the Secret Service, which Trump later quote-tweeted, adding, I agree wholeheartedly! Among his supporters on the right, however, suspicion quickly turned to whether the bombs were a false flag, or an attempt by the left to smear Republicans ahead of the midterms. Investigators need to look at the left, right, center, and non-political, Cardillo wrote on Twitter, after deleting his initial post. However, strategically speaking, there is no political upside for the right here. Jack Posobiec, a right-wing commentator who previously pushed the Pizzagate hoax, urged both sides to dial down the rhetoric—Its not funny, and you arent edgy. Take the pledge to always support peace—before wondering, an hour later, How did they get all the bombs to arrive at the same time? The answers bubbling up from the MAGA fever swamps, in this case, ranged from PSYOPS to #Alinskytactics to a mainstream-media hoax. They had it all with them all along. When their synchronized alarms beeped? It was time to call the authorities, suggested one of Posobiecs followers. (The Soros package and the CNN package were both delivered by hand, and were packaged to appear as if they were sent through the mail.)

The move came mere hours after the U.S. President warned the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives not to launch new investigations into him, threatening to retaliate by starting investigations of his own into Democratic legislators and refusing to work with them on legislation.

Donald Trumps election has created a mass audience for this model, as Pod Save America has proved. Hundreds and even thousands of aggrieved liberals routinely pack theaters across the country for live recordings of the hit podcast series hosted by Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, helping to generate millions in revenue for their company, Crooked Media. Whether similarly enthusiastic crowds will turn up for the Clintons remains to be seen. Bills legacy turned sour after #MeToo forced a re-examination of his history of inappropriate sexual relations, made worse by his own sputtering defenses. (This was litigated 20 years ago. . . . Two-thirds of the American people sided with me, he vented to an NBC reporter in June, while acknowledging that he had never personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky.) Hillarys has likewise suffered following reports that she covered for a campaign staffer accused of repeated sexual harassment. Her memoir, What Happened, was generally well-received but also highlighted many of her blind spots regarding the Trump phenomenon. Unlike her husband, Hillarys attempts to transition from politician back to human have proceeded with fits and starts. The muscle memory one builds from so many years in the media spotlight is hard to unclench.

The developments, a day after the Democrats captured a House majority in the midterm elections, set the stage for a confrontation between the newly empowered opposition party and a President determined to keep a lid on probes of his administration and business empire.

They also cast doubt on early signals that the two parties could try to work together on an infrastructure-building plan and efforts to improve the health-care system. Democratic members of Congress called for immediate hearings on Mr. Sessions firing and a law protecting Mr. Mueller.

The President also escalated his attacks on the media Wednesday, revoking the credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and barring him from the White House after Mr. Acosta asked Mr. Trump about the Russia investigation and his immigration policy.

The Democrats are expected to use their majority in the lower chamber to start or expand investigations of Mr. Trump, with his murky financial dealings, tax returns and accusations of collusion between his circle and the Kremlin during the 2016 election all possible areas of inquiry.

According to analysis by the Times comparing the last 20 months of the Obama administration with the first 20 months of the Trump administration, there has been: a 62 percent plunge in penalties imposed and ill-gotten gains ordered returned by the Securities and Exchange Commission; a 72 percent drop in corporate penalties from criminal prosecutions at the Justice Department; and just one-quarter the amount of penalties imposed on the banking industry by the S.E.C. But while Brandon Garrett, a Duke University professor, told the Times the the sharp falloff has led to the sense among companies that theres no reason to fear prosecution for committing serious corporate crimes, Trumps S.E.C. is shocked and offended by the notion it is going easy on corporate America. The articles conclusion that enforcement of the federal securities laws has flagged rests on deeply flawed methodology, Stephanie Avakian and Steven Peikin, the heads of enforcement, said in a statement. As the thorough analysis in our annual report makes clear, the division of enforcements performance, effectiveness, and activity level during our tenure compares favorably with any period in the commissions history.

In a combative White House news conference, the President said he would get Senate Republicans to investigate unspecified Democrats for supposed leaks of classified information, without providing evidence that the party has done this, if the Democrats investigate him in the House. Legislative committees have the power to subpoena witnesses and requisition documents.

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, he said, adding that in such a scenario, he would also refuse to strike any deals with the Democrats to move legislation forward: You cant do them simultaneously … if theyre doing that, were not doing the other.

Over the past few weeks, in the run-up to midterm elections that will likely see Republicans lose the House, Donald Trump has worked diligently to convince voters that they are in grave danger. Not from, say, job-killing trade wars, or domestic terrorists, but something much scarier: a caravan of migrants traveling north toward the U.S. border. Earlier in the month, the president claimed, with zero evidence, that criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in with groups of Central Americans seeking refuge in America. Over the weekend, he attempted to heighten the drama by ordering thousands of troops to the border—a wildly transparent political ploy, considering the caravan is weeks away and those in it plan to surrender and apply for amnesty. Now, with exactly a week until the election, Trump has lobbed a Hail Mary that he clearly hopes will convince voters that Republicans like him are the only thing standing between them and a United States in which every undocumented immigrant gets to kick an American out of their house: a bald-faced lie about how hes going to issue a (likely unconstitutional!) executive order to end birthright citizenship.

Shortly after, Mr. Sessions issued a resignation that he said had been demanded by the President. Mr. Trump installed Matthew Whitaker, Mr. Sessionss chief of staff, as acting attorney-general. The appointment included transferring supervision of Mr. Mueller from Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein to Mr. Whitaker. Mr. Trump did not say when he would nominate a permanent attorney-general, who would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Notably, many are sympathetic to the bind the Trump administration has found itself in. To be fair, any administration of either party—Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton—would have found this challenging, Burns told me. I dont think theres anybody out there, a senior person whos worked in government, saying we should end our relationship with Saudi Arabia over this. After all, Saudi Arabia is a critical U.S. ally—from both a strategic and economic standpoint. The Saudis serve as an imperfect ally of Israel, and are seen as a check on Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. To be honest, when it comes to tangible policy, another administration may not have been all that different than Trump, John Glaser, the director of foreign policy at the Cato Institute, told me. A typical administration would almost certainly have been more critical of the Saudis following the Khashoggi murder, but probably gently so. With the exception of some symbolic penalties—formal condemnations, calls for investigation, possibly a temporary suspension of arms sales—the U.S.-Saudi relationship would probably not be fundamentally altered.

Mr. Sessions was a Trump loyalist and one of the first high-profile politicians to endorse his presidential bid. As attorney-general, he was a major player on the Presidents hard-line immigration agenda, helping implement a contentious policy that led to unauthorized immigrants at the Mexican border being separated from their children.

But Mr. Sessions earned the Presidents ire in March, 2017, when he recused himself from overseeing investigations into Russian hacking and gave the responsibility to Mr. Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller.

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The special counsel is trying to determine whether Mr. Trumps circle colluded with the Kremlin and whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI director James Comey. His investigators have also reportedly delved into Mr. Trumps business dealings, a famously opaque area that includes bankruptcies and accusations of minimizing tax payments and dealings with organized crime.

For more than a year, Mr. Trump regularly derided his own attorney-general in public, labelling him weak on Twitter and rhetorically asking what kind of a man is this? in a Fox interview. But Mr. Sessions refused to fire back.

In an August, 2017, op-ed for CNN, Mr. Whitaker called on Mr. Mueller not to investigate Mr. Trumps businesses. He said such topics were outside the special counsels purview to expose Russian election hacking.

The Trump Organizations business dealings are plainly not within the scope of the investigation, nor should they be, wrote Mr. Whitaker, a former prosecutor, describing such inquiries as a witch hunt and fishing expedition.

It is impossible to read attorney-general Sessions firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by Donald Trump to undermine and end special counsel Muellers investigation, she wrote on Twitter. Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation.

Congress could pass a law forbidding Mr. Muellers firing or making such a move difficult. Senators tried such a move earlier this year, but Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell would not allow a vote on it.

It could also try to remove Mr. Trump from office if it deems he has obstructed justice by curbing Mr. Mueller. Such a move would be unlikely to succeed, but even initiating impeachment proceedings in the House could tie up the Trump administration for months.

In letters late Wednesday and early Thursday, Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee called on the Trump administration to preserve records related to Mr. Sessionss ouster and Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte to immediately call a hearing to investigate the matter. They also wrote to Mr. Whitaker demanding he turn oversight of Mr. Mueller back to Mr. Rosenstein, describing a potential constitutional crisis if the Special Counsels investigation is curbed.

The new House will not be sworn in until January, meaning it will be up to Republicans for the next two months whether any action is taken on Mr. Sessions or Mr. Mueller.

Mr. Whitaker could take numerous steps to curtail Mr. Muellers investigation, legal experts said. He could give him a direct order, or do something more subtle such as limit his funding or other resources.

There are all sorts of ways to influence what can happen, said Jennifer Daskal, a law professor at American University in Washington.

Whether such interference is seen as permissible is likely to be a political question, said Saikrishna Prakash, a constitutional law expert at the University of Virginia. Some people will think that will be obstruction and some will think its just inappropriate, he said.

Mr. Trumps news conference, however, swiftly went off the rails as he mocked Republicans who had lost their House seats and shouted at journalists for asking him questions he did not like.

In one exchange with Mr. Acosta, the President repeatedly tried to shut him down, saying thats enough, as the CNN reporter tried to ask about Russia.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Acosta was barred from the White House grounds and ordered to turn over his press pass when he arrived for a live hit.

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