Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out Wednesday as the country’s chief law enforcement officer after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump over his recusal from the Russia investigation.
Mr. Trump announced in a tweet that he was naming Mr. Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa, as acting attorney general. Mr. Whitaker has criticized special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between the president’s Republican campaign and Russia.
Mr. Sessions, in a one-page letter to Trump, said he was resigning “at your request.” The resignation was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions’ tumultuous tenure, when he stepped aside from the Mueller investigation.
Mr. Trump blamed the decision to recuse for the appointment of Mr. Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Mr. Sessions was part of a broader effort to stymie the probe.
Mr. Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until after the midterms but told confidants in recent weeks that he wanted Sessions out as soon as possible after the elections, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.
White House chief of staff John Kelly called Mr. Sessions before the president’s news conference on Wednesday and asked for his resignation. Mr. Sessions’ undated resignation letter was then sent to the White House.
Asked whether Mr. Whitaker would assume control over Mr. Mueller’s investigation, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores said he would be “in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.” The Justice Department did not announce a departure for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller and has closely overseen his work.
Mr. Whitaker once opined about a scenario in which Mr. Trump could fire Mr. Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mr. Mueller’s probe. In that scenario, Mueller’s budget could be reduced “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Mr. Whitaker said during a July 2017 interview with CNN.
In an op-ed for CNN, Mr. Whitaker wrote- “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
Democrats, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, immediately called for Whitaker to recuse himself from the investigation, citing his public comments. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants “answers immediately” and tweeted that “we will hold people accountable.”