WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned Wednesday at President Donald Trump's request and was replaced with his chief of staff who will now take charge of the special counsel investigation into Russia's election interference.
Sessions delivered his resignation letter to the White House, and Trump tapped Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general. In that capacity, Whitaker assumes control of the Russia investigation, raising questions about the future of the inquiry led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Whitaker has previously questioned the scope of the investigation. In a column for CNN last year, Whitaker wrote that Mueller would be going too far if he examined the Trump family's finances. "This would raise serious concerns that the special counsel's investigation was a mere witch hunt," Whitaker wrote, echoing the president's description of the investigation. Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents related to Russia.
Until now, the investigation has been overseen by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, because Sessions recused himself, citing his active role in Trump's 2016 campaign. Because Whitaker has expressed opinions about the investigation, Justice Department ethics advisers may be asked to weigh whether he should also recuse himself. If that were to happen, Rosenstein would continue to oversee the special counsel.
Whitaker had no plans to make any immediate public comments about Mueller, an administration official said.
The ouster of Sessions came just a day after midterm elections that handed control of the House to Democrats, dealing a blow to Trump for the next two years of his term. Republicans preserved their hold on the Senate and increased their majority slightly, making it likelier that Trump will be able to confirm a replacement for Sessions.
But House Democrats have made clear that they plan to use the subpoena power that will come with their majority to reopen the lower chamber's investigation into the Russia matter.
The ouster of Sessions ended a partnership that soured almost from the start of the administration.
John Kelly, White House chief of staff, called Sessions before Trump's postelection news conference Wednesday to tell the attorney general that Trump wanted him to step down, the administration official said. Trump, who did not speak with Sessions, ducked questions about Sessions' fate at the news conference.
Sessions had his letter, which was undated, delivered to the White House. "Dear Mr. President, at your request I am submitting my resignation," he wrote. He added, "Most importantly in my time as attorney general, we have restored and upheld the rule of law," and he thanked the president.
Trump announced the resignation and Whitaker's assignment on Twitter. "We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!" he wrote. "A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date."
Whitaker said in a statement Wednesday that he is committed to "leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans."
He said Sessions has been a "dedicated public servant for over 40 years" and called him a man of integrity "who has served this nation well."
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said the suddenness of Sessions' departure was unexpected.
"The president's made it pretty apparent that he wanted to go in a different direction. I think it was a little bit of a surprise that it was this soon after the election," he said.
Boozman served with Sessions and said he knows the attorney general "very, very well,"
"He's a person of principle. ... He's someone who's always been committed to the rule of law so I have a lot of respect for him," Boozman said.
Despite Sessions' ouster, Mueller's investigation should proceed, Boozman said.
"We're a nation of laws. Certainly the Mueller probe needs to continue [and] come to conclusion. I think we would all be glad for it to wrap up as quickly as possible," Boozman added.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said the timing may have been a surprise, but the personnel change itself was not.
"I think a lot of people expected that [Sessions] would depart. I kind of thought it would be after the first of the year, but I don't have any kind of inside information on that. I wasn't shocked when I heard that he was departing," Westerman said.
U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., said he appreciated Sessions' service and would "encourage the president to name a qualified candidate to serve as attorney general as expeditiously as possible."
Hill predicted that lawmakers will move swiftly to fill the vacancy.
"The appointments process, beginning in January, will be aided by the swearing in of additional Republican senators so I would anticipate the name being vetted and confirmed early in the next calendar year," he added.
The president has regularly criticized the Justice Department and Sessions, blaming the attorney general for the specter of the special counsel investigation into ties between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.
Trump has said for months that he wished to replace Sessions, but lawmakers and administration officials believed that firing the attorney general before the midterm elections would have had negative consequences for Republicans in tight races. So it came as little surprise when Sessions resigned the day after the midterms.
Trump blamed Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation in its early stages, leading to the appointment of a special counsel.
"He took the job and then he said, 'I'm going to recuse myself.' I said, 'What kind of a man is this?'" Trump said this year in a Fox News interview. "I wanted to stay uninvolved. But when everybody sees what's going on in the Justice Department -- I always put 'justice' now with quotes."
The deputy attorney general, now Rosenstein, would normally be in line to become the acting attorney general, but Trump has complained publicly about Rosenstein, too.
Installing Whitaker could clear the way for Trump to force out Mueller. To dismiss a special counsel, the president has to order the attorney general or, in the case of a recusal, the deputy attorney general, to carry it out. Rosenstein has said that he sees no justification to dismiss Mueller.
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who ran an unsuccessful campaign for a Senate seat in Iowa, played college football at the University of Iowa. In 2014, he chaired the campaign of Sam Clovis, a Republican candidate for Iowa state treasurer. That might present another potential ethics complication for Whitaker's supervision of the special counsel. Clovis went on to work as a Trump campaign adviser and has become a witness in Mueller's investigation.
Democrats and others issued statements Wednesday urging that Mueller be left to do his work and vowing to investigate whether Sessions' ouster was meant to interfere with the special counsel. Come January, Democrats will have subpoena power, having retaken the House in Tuesday's midterm elections.
"Congress must now investigate the real reason for this termination, confirm that acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is recused from all aspects of the special counsel's probe, and ensure that the Department of Justice safeguards the integrity of the Mueller investigation," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, "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. 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."
Senator-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, tweeted that it was "imperative" that Mueller's work be allowed to continue unimpeded.
A spokesman for the special counsel's office declined to comment.
In pushing out his attorney general, the president cast aside one of his earliest and strongest supporters.
In February 2016, Sessions became the first sitting senator to endorse Trump's presidential campaign, and in the months leading up to the election, he became one of the candidate's closest national security advisers.
Only weeks after he was confirmed as the United States' top law enforcement officer, Sessions became ensnared in the Russia inquiries that have consumed Trump's presidency. He recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department investigation in March 2017, after revelations that he had failed to report encounters with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of Russia during the 2016 campaign.
At the time, Sessions said there was nothing nefarious about those meetings, although he acknowledged that he "should have slowed down" and been more thoughtful in denying any contacts with Russian officials during his Senate confirmation process. His recusal was one of his first public acts as attorney general.
Trump also publicly badgered Sessions to open investigations into his defeated rival, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats, and when Sessions did not, the president excoriated the attorney general. Critics from both parties said the president was shredding the traditional independence of the law enforcement agencies in seeking what appeared to be politically motivated prosecutions.
For the most part, Sessions made no public retort. But after the president chided him in February for leaving an inquiry into the FBI's handling of the Russia investigation to an inspector general rather than conducting his own review, Sessions pushed back. "As long as I am the attorney general," he said, "I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor."
In March, Sessions said he still believed he did the right thing in recusing himself. "I don't think the attorney general can ask everybody else in the department to follow the rules if the attorney general doesn't follow them," he told Time magazine.
When Trump said Sessions "never took control of the Justice Department," Sessions fired back hours later, saying in a rare public rebuke that he "took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in."
"The Department of Justice," Sessions said, "will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
As attorney general, Sessions made a forceful mark on the Justice Department. He rolled back some of President Barack Obama's signature policies as he encouraged federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against criminal suspects.
He successfully advised Trump to rescind Obama's program protecting nearly 700,000 young people who were brought to the country as children and remain here illegally. He sued California over its sanctuary laws and targeted states that legalized marijuana.
Sessions, 71, got his start in politics as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, but his nomination for a federal judgeship was blocked by the Senate over claims of racial insensitivity. He mounted a comeback by winning election as the state attorney general and then, in 1996, to the Senate that had once rejected him.
Information for this article was contributed by Peter Baker and Katie Benner of The New York Times; by Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig, Karoun Demirjian, Robert Costa, Philip Rucker and Tom Hamburger of The Washington Post; by staff members of The Associated Press; and by Frank E. Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Jeff Sessions (right) returns to his home in Washington on Wednesday after resigning as attorney general just one day after the midterm elections that saw Democrats gain control of the House.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves the White House on Wednesday.
In this April 24, 2014, file photo, then-Iowa Republican senatorial candidate and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker watches before a live televised debate in Johnston, Iowa. President Donald Trump announced in a tweet that he was naming Whitaker, as acting attorney general, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out Nov. 7, 2018, as the country's chief law enforcement officer after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from Trump over his recusal from the Russia investigation.
A Section on 11/08/2018
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