What will acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker mean for the Mueller inquiry?

Leroy Wright
November 9, 2018

As acting attorney general, Whitaker will presumably - assuming he has no conflicts of interest - begin overseeing the special counsel's probe.

Never in modern history has a president attacked a Cabinet member as frequently and harshly in public as Trump did Sessions, 71, who had been one of the first members of Congress to back his presidential campaign in 2015.

Mr Whitaker can now assume control of the Mueller inquiry, which has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until now.

But it's not typical for chiefs of staff to replace the head of an agency when that head resigns, as former CIA staffer and NBC contributor Ned Price pointed out.

Now, though, Sessions is gone and the Justice Department says that means Whitaker's purview includes the special counsel's investigation.

Trump was only a few weeks into his presidency in March 2017 when Sessions upset him by stepping aside from overseeing an Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, citing news reports of previously undisclosed meetings he had with Russia's ambassador to Washington for his recusal.

"Sessions allowed the Department of Justice to function as the political arm of the Trump administration to undo fundamental rights that protect each of us, disregarding years of legal precedent and settled law".

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Trump's relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first USA senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact his crime-fighting agenda and priorities, particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies, largely mirrored the president's.

Whitaker's views as an outside commentator before joining the government have been music to the ears of Trump and Republicans.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee and a frequent Trump critic, urged Congress to investigate "the real reason" for the attorney general's "termination".

Asked whether Whitaker would take control of the Russian Federation probe, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said, "The acting attorney general is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice". "By forcing the firing (of) the attorney general, the president now threatens the rule of law itself".

Sessions endured most of the name-calling in silence, though he did issue two public statements defending the department, including one in which he said he would serve "with integrity and honor" for as long as he was in the job.

Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler, expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee starting in January, said removing Sessions fit Trump's pattern of interfering in the work of the Justice Department and Mueller. He also announced media leak crackdowns, tougher policies against opioids and his Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration policy that resulted in parents being separated from their children at the border.

The Democrats, who won the House in the mid-terms, have vowed to protect it. He appointed Mueller in May 2017 as the Justice Department's special counsel to take control of the FBI's Russian Federation probe after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The Justice Department, responding to a Washington Post report, soon acknowledged that Sessions had actually had two encounters during the campaign with the then-Russian ambassador. On Wednesday, the president tweeted that "a permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date".

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