Fears for Russia probe as Trump fires US Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Washington: US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired by Donald Trump on Wednesday, casting a cloud over the Russia investigation that has dogged the White House, a day after Republicans lost control over the lower house of Congress.
The move capped more than a year of bitter criticism by the president over his legal advisor’s decision to recuse himself from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, paving the way for the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
In announcing the resignation in a tweet that thanked the former Alabama senator “for his service” — Trump right away named as acting attorney general Sessions’ chief of staff Matthew Whitaker.
That set off immediate alarm bells: Whitaker has been overtly critical of the broad scope granted to Mueller’s team to probe beyond allegations Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in 2016, into other ties between Trump, his family and aides, and Russia — an investigation the president calls a “witch hunt.”
In an op-ed in August last year he publicly urged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who oversees the probe — to “limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel.”
As acting attorney general, Whitaker now has the power to wrest oversight away from Rosenstein, and take charge himself.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately called on Whitaker to recuse himself from the probe as his predecessor had, “given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations” on it.
Schumer and other leading Democrats were joined in their call for an unhampered probe by Republican Mitt Romney, a former presidential candidate and frequent Trump critic who won a US Senate seat in Tuesday’s midterm.
Thanking Sessions for his service, Romney said that it was “imperative that the important work of the Justice Department continues, and that the Mueller investigation proceeds to its conclusion unimpeded.”
Whitaker himself meanwhile offered little clue about his intentions in a bland statement to reporters thanking Trump for his appointment, praising his former boss as a “dedicated public servant” and adding he would work to leading a department that conformed to the “highest ethical standards.”
Sessions was the first casualty of a cabinet shake-up that had been expected from Trump following the midterm elections.
But his departure was anticipated since early this year, after he endured withering and repeated criticism from the president over the legally troubled ban on Muslim travellers Trump sought when he came into office, and over the Mueller probe.
“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions said in the first line of a letter addressed to Trump, released by the Department of Justice.