WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The move Wednesday has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, until now Sessions’ chief of staff, has questioned the inquiry’s scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the investigation.
Congressional Democrats, concerned about protecting Mueller, called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation in its final but potentially explosive stages.
The resignation, in a 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.”
The departure was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions’ tenure, when he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because of his campaign advocacy and following the revelation that he had met twice in 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Trump blamed the recusal for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation two months later and began examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct the probe.
The investigation has so far produced 32 criminal charges and guilty pleas from four former Trump aides. But the work is not done and critical decisions await that could shape the remainder of Trump’s presidency.
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.
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.
The Justice Department did not directly answer whether Whitaker would assume control of Mueller’s investigation, with spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores saying he would be “in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.”