In ordinary times, a president’s decision to replace his attorney general halfway through his term wouldn’t set off alarm bells about possible obstruction of justice. But these are not ordinary times and Donald Trump is not an ordinary president.
Trump’s decision to ask for the resignation of the long-suffering Jeff Sessions raises the question of whether, with the midterm election behind him, the president might finally try to shut down the Justice Department investigation of possible ties between Russia and his 2016 campaign — the probe he has feverishly denounced as a “witch hunt.”
He must not be allowed to do so.
In ousting Sessions, Trump has finally punished the Republican former senator from Alabama for his absolutely appropriate decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of the role he had played in Trump’s campaign. That recusal paved the way for Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein to appoint Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel in the Russia investigation. For Trump, Sessions’ recusal was an unforgivable sin.
Given that history, Sessions’ forced departure raises alarms that Trump might make good on his threat this summer to “get involved” if the Justice Department and the FBI didn’t “straighten out properly.”
Sessions’ duties will be temporarily assumed not by Rosenstein, who would seem the obvious choice, but by Matthew G. Whitaker, who has been serving as Sessions’ chief of staff. Justice Department officials indicated that Whitaker also would take over supervision of Mueller’s Russia investigation. Yet Whitaker has been critical of the probe, warning in a 2017 column that the special counsel was “dangerously close to crossing” a red line after it was reported that investigators could be looking into financial records relating to the Trump Organization.
Whitaker also has spoken publicly about how Sessions’ successor as attorney general could stall Mueller’s probe by eliminating its budget, and he went to Twitter in August 2017 to share an op-ed that instructed Trump’s then-attorney, “Do not cooperate with Mueller lynch mob.” This track record suggests that Trump did not elevate Whitaker for his managerial prowess or his zeal for the Justice Department’s mission.
This page opposed Sessions’ nomination as attorney general because of his regressive views on civil rights, immigration, sentencing and other issues. And once in office, Sessions lived down to his critics’ worst expectations. He was a throwback in many ways to the bad old days of tough-sounding but uninformed approaches to criminal justice.
But it wasn’t these policy views that antagonized Trump; it was Sessions’ recognition that he was ethically obligated to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and the fact that, as Trump put, he “never took control of the Justice Department.” To his credit, Sessions pointedly pushed back against the president’s criticism, insisting that the Justice Department under his leadership “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”
That must remain the case after Sessions’ departure. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said on Wednesday that “any effort to interfere with the special counsel’s investigation would be a gross abuse of power by the president. While the president may have the authority to replace the attorney general, this must not be the first step in an attempt to impede, obstruct or end the Mueller investigation.”
Republican leaders in Congress need to echo that warning and support legislation to make it harder to remove Mueller. And the Senate should refuse to confirm any nominee to replace Sessions who won’t pledge under oath to protect the special counsel and allow him to complete his assignment.