The firing of attorney general Jeff Sessions on Wednesday by Donald Trump prompted a rash of warnings that Trump’s real target was special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, which Trump had complained loudly about at a news conference just hours earlier.
The firing “fits a clear pattern of interference” by Trump in the Mueller inquiry, said congressman Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the judiciary committee, in a statement. “There is no mistaking what this means, and what is at stake: this is a constitutionally perilous moment for our country and for the president.”
Adam Schiff, the incoming chairman of the House intelligence committee, tweeted that Trump “wants an attorney general to serve his interest, not the public”.
“Mueller’s investigation and the independence of the justice department must be protected,” Schiff said.
Shortly after Trump tweeted that Sessions was being replaced – which came about 12 hours after the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in midterm elections – the attorney general released an undated letter informing Trump “at your request, I am submitting my resignation”.
A sense of alarm over the Sessions firing and what it could mean for the Mueller investigation was widespread in national security circles. The special counsel’s office is nested inside the justice department, which is headed by the attorney general.
“Not a drill,” tweeted Susan Hennessey, the editor of the Lawfare blog and a Brookings Institution fellow. “This is a frontal assault on the Mueller investigation. Trump sees a window and he’s taking it.”
Trump’s precise plan for Mueller was unclear from the immediate news of the Sessions firing, the latest in a long series of high-profile firings and resignations from the highest echelons of the Trump administration. While Trump’s loudest complaints about Sessions centered on the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia inquiry, Trump has voiced displeasure with Sessions for many other reasons.
Most recently, Trump blamed Sessions after two Republican candidates for Congress were hit with criminal indictments in the run-up to the midterm elections. (Both candidates won.)
But most observers saw a clear move against Mueller by the White House in Sessions’s firing. Matthew Whitaker, the official named by Trump to act as Sessions’s stand-in pending a formal nomination to be announced later, published an editorial in 2017 warning that the Mueller inquiry was overstepping its bounds.
A justice department spokeswoman indicated on Wednesday that Whitaker would have direct oversight of the Mueller investigation, replacing the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who stepped in after Sessions’s recusal.
“The acting attorney general is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice,” spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in an email.
This is a frontal assault on the Mueller investigation. Trump sees a window and he’s taking itSusan Hennessey, Brookings Institution
Elected officials may challenge that attempted transfer of command, however, arguing that Whitaker would first need to be confirmed by the Senate before assuming the oversight role. The uncertainty attached to the matter underscored the rare nature of the situation and the internal turbulence at play.
Whitaker described an internal strategy for foiling Mueller on CNN in 2017. “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced,” he said, “it would [be a] recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
In an oversight role of Mueller, Whitaker might further be able to frustrate the Russia inquiry by cooperating with hostile congressional committees attacking the investigation with subpoenas for sensitive documents or testimony. Rosenstein had shielded Mueller from such attacks.
Hours before firing Sessions, Trump ranted in a press conference that the Mueller inquiry was “a disgrace” and said: “I could fire everybody right now.”
But then Trump seemed to say he would not take action to pull the plug on the Mueller inquiry. “I don’t want to stop it,” Trump said, “because politically I don’t want to stop it.”
Democrats expressed alarm and concern at the timing of Sessions’s firing and the identity of his replacement. The Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer, called on Whitaker to recuse himself.
“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,” said Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, in a statement. “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.”
“Anyone who attempts to interfere with or obstruct the Mueller inquiry must be held accountable,” the former attorney general Eric Holder tweeted. “This is a red line. We are a nation of laws and norms not subject to the self interested actions of one man.”
Whitaker has left a long trail of published opinions indicating a skepticism of the Mueller probe and an occasional anti-Democratic partisan bent. Defending a June 2017 meeting between Trump campaign figures and Russian operatives, Whitaker echoed Trump, saying: “You would always take the meeting.” He wrote in July 2016 that he would indict Hillary Clinton over her handling of classified information on email.
Parts of the Mueller investigation may be out of Trump’s reach. “Mueller has this whole thing booby trapped for precisely these kinds of Mickey Mouse moves by POTUS,” tweeted former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa.
Mueller has this whole thing booby trapped for precisely these kinds of Mickey Mouse moves by POTUS https://t.co/WWdIDTOIqd— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) November 7, 2018
Others expressed confidence that Mueller had an emergency plan in place.
“Mueller has known since day 1 he may be canned!” the former justice department official Julie Zebrak tweeted. “They have been doling out work to the [US attorneys offices], the litigating divisions and have contingencies in place. Career folks will continue working and the show will go on.”