Fears for Russia probe as Trump fires Jeff Sessions


WASHINGTON, Nov 8, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was
fired by Donald Trump 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

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

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.

– First casualty after midterms –

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

Sessions was the first casualty of a cabinet shakeup 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 travelers 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

– Trump’s first backer –

Sessions was the first US senator to back Trump’s presidential run in
2016, giving the New York real estate billionaire credibility against a broad
field of Republican stalwarts.

The two were reportedly brought together by a shared wish to crack down on

After taking office in January 2017, the former prosecutor launched tough
law-and-order policies and a broad ban on Muslim travelers promised by Trump
during the campaign.

He was in the vanguard of administration pushes to expand the ranks of
federal law enforcement, fill courts with conservative judges, and crack down
on Central American gangs such as MS-13.

But the president was infuriated when in March 2017 Sessions recused
himself from the nascent Russia investigation, because of his own Russian
contacts during the 2016 campaign. Instead, he gave Rosenstein that

When Trump weeks later fired FBI director James Comey in anger at the
Russia investigation, Rosenstein stunned the administration by naming
Mueller, a former FBI chief, to lead the probe as an independent prosecutor.

That structure, with Sessions recused and Rosenstein supervising Mueller,
has insulated the investigation from outside interference.

Still, Trump has repeatedly accused Mueller of running an illegal
investigation staffed by Democrats and threatened to shut it down.

– Indictments looming –

Matters though were clearly coming to a head after Mueller racked up
indictments against 34 people and three companies, in direct and spinoff
cases. Eight guilty pleas have resulted, and one jury trial conviction.

Most notably, several top Trump aides have agreed to cooperate: former
national security advisor Michael Flynn; former campaign chair Paul Manafort;
former vice chair Richard Gates; and former Trump Organization vice president
Michael Cohen, long Trump’s personal fixer.

Mueller was expected to unveil in the coming weeks new indictments,
possibly against 2016 campaign consultant Roger Stone and Trump’s son Donald

Moreover, Mueller’s team and the White House have been haggling for months
over whether the president himself would answer questions. Mueller is known
to be examining whether Trump obstructed justice in firing Comey — and other

In addition, the White House has shown concern that Mueller is
investigating the finances of the Trump Organization, and links to Russia.