Attorney General Jeff Sessions was ousted from his job Wednesday, leaving a host of questions about what comes next for the ongoing special counsel probe, criminal justice and immigration enforcement.
Formally, Mr. Sessions resigned, but the move came at President Trump’s request less than 24 hours after the midterm elections.
Mr. Trump said on Twitter he’s named Matthew G. Whitaker, the current department chief of staff, to become acting attorney general, leapfrogging Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“He will serve our country well,” the president said of Mr. Whitaker. “We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
Democrats said the move to oust Mr. Sessions could precipitate a constitutional crisis, saying it could be seen as an effort to derail the ongoing probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into the 2016 presidential election, Russian meddling and Trump campaign figures’ behavior.
Mr. Rosenstein had been overseeing that probe after Mr. Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters, but Mr. Whitaker will now take charge.
In a statement, the new acting attorney general called his post “a true honor.”
“I am 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.
Prior to joining the Justice Department, Mr. Whitaker served as a U.S. attorney and politician in Iowa.
Last year, he publicly complained about the Mueller probe, writing a column for CNN offering ways the president could shut it down without firing the special counsel.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said after comments like those, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself and leave the Mueller probe in the hands of Mr. Rosenstein.
Other Democrats demanded Congress approve legislation to protect Mr. Mueller from being fired or having his jurisdiction limited.
“Acting Attorney General Whitaker has made his intentions clear to do the president’s bidding and stop Mueller. This move could lead our nation into a constitutional confrontation,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, Mr. Schumer’s top lieutenant.
Mr. Sessions had been on thin ice for 18 months, dating back to his recusal from Russia matters and then from Mr. Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mr. Mueller as special counsel.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly referred to the investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
The president did not call Mr. Sessions to ask for his resignation, according to a source. Instead that call was made by the president’s chief of staff, Gen. John F. Kelly.
Typically, the deputy attorney general would replace an outgoing attorney general. However, Mr. Trump invoked the Vacancies Reform Act to pass over Mr. Rosenstein, who has also clashed with the president, and to select Mr. Whitaker.
With the Republicans losing the House on Tuesday, the Democrats have already threatened hearings on the decision to place Mr. Whitaker at the Justice Department’s helm.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who is set to become chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted a vow to hold Mr. Trump accountable, saying “Americans must have answers immediately.”
Mr. Trump, during a press conference held before the Sessions resignation, again disparaged the Mueller probe — but signaled he wouldn’t force it to end.
“I could fire everybody right now,” he said. “But I don’t want to stop it, politically I don’t like stopping it.”
He did not, during the press conference, telegraph the looming Sessions decision. Yet, the move had been long anticipated with the president saying as recently as September that his attorney general would be out after midterms.
The first sitting senator to endorse Mr. Trump’s candidacy in 2016, Mr. Sessions became a frequent punching bag for the president’s frustration with the Mueller probe. Mr. Trump publicly fumed over Mr. Sessions’ recusal, calling his attorney-general names ranging from “an idiot” to “disgraceful” and openly saying he would not have picked Mr. Sessions if he’d known beforehand that the recusal wpuld happen.
He also complained that the Justice Department’s criminal prosecution of two GOP House members could hurt Republicans’ chance to maintain the majority. Both of those Republicans appear to have won their races, though the GOP did lose the majority in Tuesday’s elections.
Mr. Sessions had submitted his resignation last year shortly after the special counsel was appointed, but Mr. Trump refused to accept it — though he also continued to mock his attorney general.
The fractured relationship came to a head in August when Mr. Trump told Fox News that Mr. Sessions failed to take control of corruption at the Justice Department, saying that he was only attorney general because of his “loyalty” to the presidential campaign.
In rare rebuke of Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions issued a statement saying he would not be “improperly influenced” by political pressures.
Mr. Sessions defended his tenure in the resignation letter.
“We have restored and upheld the rule of law — a glorious tradition that each of us has a responsibility to safeguard,” Mr. Sessions wrote. “We have operated with integrity and have lawfully and aggressively advanced the policy agenda of this administration.
Mr. Sessions had overturned the Obama administration’s prosecution rules, sued sanctuary cities, poured resources into fighting the opioid epidemic, backed up the president’s tough talk on violent crime, and even shaped anti-trust policies in line with Mr. Trump’s campaign promises.
Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III called Mr. Sessions one of the best Justice Department chiefs in history.
“He’s restored the department to its basic role as a machine of criminal justice as well as being a champion of liberty,” he said. “He has made sure the department returned to the path of constitutional fidelity, changing the position of the government on a number of constitutional issues that he went on to win in the Supreme Court.”
Although Mr. Whitaker appears to be an unabashed conservative based on his failed Iowa U.S. Senate bid, it is not known how much of Mr. Sessions’ policies he will pursue.
Mr. Sessions’ ouster also fueled questions about the future of Mr. Rosenstein. He was at the White House for a previously scheduled meeting Wednesday afternoon, after Mr. Whitaker had been named acting attorney general.
Mr. Rosenstein has also been a frequent target of the president’s ire. Yet, Mr. Trump passed on a chance to get rid of him after the New York Times reported in September that Mr. Rosenstein discussed secretly recording the president and invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
The two talked aboard Air Force One in October, after which Mr. Trump said he had no plans to fire Mr. Rosenstein and said their relationship was positive.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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