What Are the Implications of Firing Jeff Sessions?
-By Jim Owen
President Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions as attorney general is sparking concerns that the Russian election-meddling investigation may not be allowed to proceed.
Sessions lost his job the morning after the Nov. 6 mid-term elections. The dismissal did not come as a surprise since Trump had previously signaled his intention to replace the Justice Department chief. The president reportedly did not want to take the action before the mid-terms, in fear that it could adversely affect Republican candidates.
Trump frequently criticized Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russian investigation. Government lawyers advised Sessions to hand over supervision of the probe to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. They warned that the attorney general’s involvement in the 2016 Trump campaign could pose a conflict of interest, since Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the campaign colluded with the Russians.
Why was Sessions Fired?
Trump’s critics claim that he got rid of Sessions to replace him with someone who would rein in the investigation, which the president has called a “witch hunt.” Trump denies that his associates conspired with Kremlin-linked hackers, and disputes allegations that he has obstructed justice during the probe.
According to the Washington Examiner, the president not only wanted an attorney general who would challenge Mueller. He also needed to “secure greater personal rapport” with the person serving as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer. Trump apparently found his man in Matthew Whitaker, who had been Sessions’ chief of staff. Trump named the former U.S. attorney as acting attorney general.
Will Whitaker Supervise the Investigation?
The firing of Jeff Sessions raised questions about whether Rosenstein will continue to oversee Mueller’s legal team. At last report, it was still unknown if Whitaker would recuse himself from the investigation due to his past statements slamming the special counsel and praising the president. He once called Mueller’s team a “lynch mob.”
USA Today noted that Justice Department rules require officials to recuse themselves from investigations involving anyone with whom they have had personal relationships. Prosecutors also should step aside when they find themselves in compromised positions due to political entanglements or beliefs, according to the newspaper.
Whitaker may have such a conflict not only because he supports Trump and opposes the investigation. He also has close ties with Sam Clovis, a former co-chairman of the Trump campaign who is a witness in the probe. In a Reuters interview, Clovis described Whitaker as a “dear friend.”
Can the Attorney General Limit What Comes Out in the Report?
If Whitaker does not recuse himself, he will have the power to curtail the investigation and determine whether Mueller’s findings are publicly released. He could also prevent the special counsel from filing additional indictments.
In July 2017, Whitaker told CNN that one way to impede the probe would be to cut Mueller’s funding. He envisioned the possibility of Sessions being replaced by an attorney general who avoids scandal by not firing the special counsel, but effectively stifles the investigation by depriving it of the necessary money.
In an op-ed for CNN, Whitaker argued that the probe should not extend to scrutiny of the Trump Organization. He wrote that the company’s finances, and those of Trump family members, are irrelevant to whatever happened with the 2016 campaign and the alleged actions of Russian operatives. Whitaker suggested that expanding the investigation in such a way would be an abuse of power by Mueller.
Whitaker got his job at the Justice Department two months after the op-ed appeared online.
Will the President Fire Mueller?
The firing of Jeff Sessions led to speculation that Trump might also dismiss the special counsel. Instead of doing it himself, he could tell Whitaker to sack Mueller and all his investigators.
Trump, following his dismissal of Sessions, insisted that the law allows him to fire the special counsel as well. In June, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters: “While the president has the right to, he has no intention to do so.”
According to factcheck.org, the commander-in-chief cannot fire a federal investigator. The website reported that the official who hires a prosecutor, Rosenstein in this case, is the only one with that authority. Even then, “good cause” is mandated. Constitutional experts have different opinions on the matter.
Would Firing Mueller Avoid a Subpoena of Trump?
Trump is afraid Mueller will subpoena him to speak with investigators. There has been considerable debate among legal scholars whether a special counsel can force a president to testify under oath.
The White House is allegedly engaged in a legal battle with Mueller’s team over the prospect of a subpoena. Nelson Cunningham, a former federal prosecutor, said the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., has heard arguments about the issue.
The administration denies that such a fight is happening, even though Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told The Washington Post in August that officials were writing a memo in opposition to the issuance of a subpoena. He said the administration would go to the Supreme Court, if necessary, to stop such an action by Mueller. Trump could presumably prevent a subpoena by forcing the investigation to end, or by arranging for the appointment of a new special counsel who would not compel him to tesify.
Should the Rule of Law Prevail?
Lawyers for Good Government (LGG), an organization of more than 125,000 lawyers, declared that lawmakers and the public need to make sure no one interferes with the investigation. The group said its members were “deeply concerned” by revelations that Trump was thinking about firing Mueller, as well as Rosenstein.
If the president did that or attempted to quash the probe in any other way, there would be a crisis for the rule of law and the future of American democracy, according to LGG. The organization stressed that even the president must obey the nation’s laws, which means not meddling with Mueller or impeding his legal team’s work.