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Future of Mueller Russia probe in the air as Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigns at Trump’s request

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out
Wednesday as the country’s chief law enforcement officer after
enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks
from President Donald Trump over his recusal from the Russia
investigation.

Trump announced in a tweet that he was naming Sessions’ chief
of staff, Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa,
as acting attorney general. Whitaker has criticized special
counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential
co-ordination between the president’s Republican campaign and
Russia.

Sessions, in a one-page letter to Trump, said he was resigning
“at your request.” The resignation was the culmination of a
toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions’
tumultuous tenure, when he stepped aside from the Mueller
investigation.

Trump blamed the decision to recuse for the appointment of
Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began
examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a
broader effort to stymie the probe.

Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until
after the midterms but 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.

White House chief of staff John Kelly called Sessions before
the president’s news conference on Wednesday and asked for his
resignation. Sessions’ undated resignation letter was then sent
to the White House.

Asked whether Whitaker would assume control over Mueller’s
investigation, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores said
Whitaker would be “in charge of all matters under the purview
of the Department of Justice.” The Justice Department did not
announce a departure for Deputy Attorney General Rod
Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has closely overseen his
work.

Whitaker once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire
Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could
stifle the funding of Mueller’s probe. In that scenario,
Mueller’s budget could be reduced “so low that his
investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said during a
July 2017 interview with CNN.

In an op-ed for CNN, Whitaker wrote: “Mueller has come up to a
red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation
that he is dangerously close to crossing.”

Democrats, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, immediately called for
Whitaker to recuse himself from the investigation, citing his
public comments. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the
House Judiciary Committee, said he wants “answers immediately”
and tweeted that “we will hold people accountable.”

U.S.
President Donald Trump with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in
December 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP, File

Trump’s relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the
Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump
and despite the fact that his crime-fighting agenda and
priorities — particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement
policies — largely mirrored the president’s.

But the relationship was irreparably damaged in March 2017 when
Sessions, acknowledging previously undisclosed meetings with
the Russian ambassador and citing his work as a campaign aide,
recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump repeatedly lamented that he would have never selected
Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse
himself. The recusal left the investigation in the hands of
Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller two months later after Trump
fired then-FBI Director James Comey.

The rift lingered, and Sessions, despite praising the
president’s agenda and hewing to his priorities, never managed
to return to Trump’s good graces.

The deteriorating relationship became a soap opera stalemate
for the administration. Trump belittled Sessions but, perhaps
following the advice of aides, didn’t fire him. Sessions, for
his part, proved determined to remain in the position until
dismissed. A logjam broke when Republican senators who had
backed Sessions signalled a willingness to consider a new
attorney general.

In attacks delivered on Twitter, in person and in interviews,
Trump called Sessions weak and beleaguered, complained that he
wasn’t more aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption
against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and called it
“disgraceful” that Sessions wasn’t more serious in scrutinizing
the origins of the Russia investigation for possible law
enforcement bias — even though the attorney general did ask the
Justice Department’s inspector general to examine those claims.

Some Democrats considered Sessions too eager to do Trump’s
bidding

The broadsides escalated in recent months, with Trump telling
an interviewer that Sessions “never had control” of the Justice
Department and accusing him on Twitter of not protecting
Republican interests by allowing two GOP congressmen to be
indicted before the election.

Sessions endured most of the name-calling in silence, though he
did issue two public statements defending the department,
including one in which he said he would serve “with integrity
and honour” for as long as he was in the job.

Sessions, who likely suspected his ouster was imminent, was
spotted by reporters giving some of his grandchildren a tour of
the White House over the weekend. He did not respond when asked
why he was there.

The recusal from the Russia investigation allowed Sessions to
pursue conservative issues he had long championed as a senator,
often in isolation among fellow Republicans.

He found satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era
policies that conservatives say flouted the will of Congress,
including by encouraging prosecutors to pursue the most serious
charges they could and by promoting more aggressive enforcement
of federal marijuana law. He also announced media leak
crackdowns and tougher policies against opioids, and his
Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration
policy that resulted in migrant parents being separated from
their children at the border.

His agenda unsettled liberals who said that Sessions’ focus on
tough prosecutions marked a return to failed drug war tactics
that unduly hurt minorities and the poor, and that his
rollbacks of protections for gay and transgender people amount
to discrimination.

Some Democrats also considered Sessions too eager to do Trump’s
bidding and overly receptive to his grievances.

Sessions, for instance, directed senior prosecutors to examine
potential corruption in a uranium field transaction that some
Republicans have said may have implicated Clinton in wrongdoing
and benefited donors of the Clinton Foundation. He also fired
one of the president’s primary antagonists, former FBI Deputy
Director Andrew McCabe, just before he was to have retired — a
move Trump hailed as a “great day for democracy.”

Despite it all, Sessions never found himself back in favour
with the president.

The problems started after he told senators during his
confirmation hearing that he had never met with Russians during
the campaign. The Justice Department, responding to a
Washington Post report, acknowledged that Sessions had actually
had two encounters during the campaign with the then-Russian
ambassador. He recused himself the next day, saying it would be
inappropriate to oversee an investigation into a campaign he
was part of.

The announcement set off a frenzy inside the White House, with
Trump directing his White House counsel to call Sessions
beforehand and urge him not to step aside. Sessions rejected
the entreaty. Mueller’s team, which has interviewed Sessions,
has been investigating the president’s attacks on him and his
demands to have a loyalist in charge of the Russia
investigation.

Sessions had been protected for much of his tenure by the
support of Senate Republicans, including Judiciary Committee
Chairman Chuck Grassley, who had said he would not schedule a
confirmation hearing for another attorney general if Trump
fired him.

But that support began to fade, with Grassley suggesting over
the summer that he might have time for a hearing after all.

Whitaker, an Iowa native, previously served as U.S. Attorney
for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 until 2009. He
managed a couple of dozen attorneys who prosecute federal
crimes and represent the government in civil matters in half of
Iowa.

Most of his career had been spent in private practice,
including at a Des Moines law firm he founded with other
Republican Party activists in 2009. Whitaker, who briefly
worked as a conservative legal commentator on CNN, twice failed
in bids for statewide elected office, most recently losing the
2014 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.

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