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