A shakeup in Washington today could pose an interesting challenge for President Donald Trump in regards to the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
News broke on Wednesday, the day after the 2018 midterm elections, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned. “Dear Mr. President, at your request I am submitting my resignation," Sessions said in his letter, adding he was “honored to serve as Attorney General” and had “worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for the presidency.”
Trump tweeted that Sessions would be replaced on an acting basis by Matthew G. Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions’s chief of staff.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!” Trump tweeted in response to the news. “A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
The seemingly amicable exit was likely to be for show, as it’s been widely reported the two have had a contentious relationship. As the New York Times described, it has been “one of the most acrimonious public standoffs between a commander in chief and a senior cabinet member in modern American history."
According to a Justice Department official, Whitaker will assume authority over the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, but his role “could be reviewed by ethics officials.”
The reports explains:
A Justice Department official said Whitaker would assume authority over the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — though his role will be subject to the normal review process for conflicts. Because Sessions was recused, the special counsel probe had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who also has had strained relations with Trump, but is considered safe in his position for the moment. Rosenstein was headed to the White House Wednesday afternoon for what an official said was a pre-scheduled meeting.
Though Sessions’s removal was long expected, the installation of Whitaker sparked fears that the president might be trying to exert control over the special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III.
A legal commentator before he came into the Justice Department, Whitaker had mused publicly about how a Sessions replacement might reduce Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
The Washington Post also points to an article Whitaker penned and published in CNN on August 6, 2017. The op-ed starts with Whitaker stating:
“Last month, when President Donald Trump was asked by The New York Times if special counsel Robert Mueller would be crossing a line if he started investigating the finances of Trump and his family, the President said, "I think that's a violation. Look, this is about Russia."
The President is absolutely correct. Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
In the article, Whitaker continues to argue that Mueller’s probe into Trump's finances, or his family's, “falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign.” “That goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel,” Whitaker wrote.
In 2016, Whitaker wrote an op-ed for USA Today titled “I would indict Hillary Clinton: Opposing view.”
In addition to these op-eds, the Washington Post reports that Whitaker chaired the campaign of Sam Clovis, a Republican candidate for Iowa state treasurer. According to Politico, Clovis was a “cooperative witness,” on the fringes of inquiry in the Mueller probe.
In terms of allegiances, at least one commentator has referred to Whitaker a “Trump loyalist.” According to the New York Times' Katie Benner and Maggie Haberman:
Mr. Whitaker cuts the kind of central-casting figure whom Mr. Trump prefers, and he has served as what one White House aide called a “balm” on the relationship between the president and the Justice Department. He has frequently visited the Oval Office and is said to have an easy chemistry with Mr. Trump. On Monday morning, Mr. Trump himself called Mr. Whitaker, not with an explicit job offer but a reassurance that he has faith in him.
Since news broke about Whitaker’s new role, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he should recuse himself from supervising Mueller's investigation.
"Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from its oversight for the duration of his time as acting attorney general," Schumer said in a statement on Wednesday.