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.
Trump announced in a tweet that he was naming Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa, as acting attorney general. Whitaker has criticized special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between the president’s Republican campaign and Russia.
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.
Trump blamed the decision to recuse for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to stymie the probe.
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 Sessions before the president’s news conference on Wednesday and asked for his resignation. Sessions’ undated resignation letter was then sent to the White House.
Asked whether Whitaker would assume control over Mueller’s investigation, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores said Whitaker 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 Mueller and has closely overseen his work.
Whitaker once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller’s probe. In that scenario, Mueller’s budget could be reduced “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said during a July 2017 interview with CNN.
In an op-ed for CNN, 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.”
Trump’s relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact that his crime-fighting agenda and priorities — particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies — largely mirrored the president’s.
But the relationship was irreparably damaged in March 2017 when Sessions, acknowledging previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and citing his work as a campaign aide, recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Trump repeatedly lamented that he would have never selected Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself. The recusal left the investigation in the hands of Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller two months later after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey.
The rift lingered, and Sessions, despite praising the president’s agenda and hewing to his priorities, never managed to return to Trump’s good graces.
The deteriorating relationship became a soap opera stalemate for the administration. Trump belittled Sessions but, perhaps following the advice of aides, didn’t fire him. Sessions, for his part, proved determined to remain in the position until dismissed. A logjam broke when Republican senators who had backed Sessions signaled a willingness to consider a new attorney general.
In attacks delivered on Twitter, in person and in interviews, Trump called Sessions weak and beleaguered, complained that he wasn’t more aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and called it “disgraceful” that Sessions wasn’t more serious in scrutinizing the origins of the Russia investigation for possible law enforcement bias — even though the attorney general did ask the Justice Department’s inspector general to examine those claims.
The broadsides escalated in recent months, with Trump telling an interviewer that Sessions “never had control” of the Justice Department and accusing him on Twitter of not protecting Republican interests by allowing two GOP congressmen to be indicted before the election.
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.
Sessions, who likely suspected his ouster was imminent, was spotted by reporters giving some of his grandchildren a tour of the White House over the weekend. He did not respond when asked why he was there.
The recusal from the Russia investigation allowed Sessions to pursue conservative issues he had long championed as a senator, often in isolation among fellow Republicans.
He found satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era policies that conservatives say flouted the will of Congress, including by encouraging prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could and by promoting more aggressive enforcement of federal marijuana law. He also announced media leak crackdowns and tougher policies against opioids, and his Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration policy that resulted in migrant parents being separated from their children at the border.
His agenda unsettled liberals who said that Sessions’ focus on tough prosecutions marked a return to failed drug war tactics that unduly hurt minorities and the poor, and that his rollbacks of protections for gay and transgender people amount to discrimination.
Some Democrats also considered Sessions too eager to do Trump’s bidding and overly receptive to his grievances.
Sessions, for instance, directed senior prosecutors to examine potential corruption in a uranium field transaction that some Republicans have said may have implicated Clinton in wrongdoing and benefited donors of the Clinton Foundation. He also fired one of the president’s primary antagonists, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, just before he was to have retired — a move Trump hailed as a “great day for democracy.”
Despite it all, Sessions never found himself back in favor with the president.
The problems started after he told senators during his confirmation hearing that he had never met with Russians during the campaign. The Justice Department, responding to a Washington Post report, acknowledged that Sessions had actually had two encounters during the campaign with the then-Russian ambassador. He recused himself the next day, saying it would be inappropriate to oversee an investigation into a campaign he was part of.
The announcement set off a frenzy inside the White House, with Trump directing his White House counsel to call Sessions beforehand and urge him not to step aside. Sessions rejected the entreaty. Mueller’s team, which has interviewed Sessions, has been investigating the president’s attacks on him and his demands to have a loyalist in charge of the Russia investigation.
Sessions had been protected for much of his tenure by the support of Senate Republicans, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who had said he would not schedule a confirmation hearing for another attorney general if Trump fired him.
But that support began to fade, with Grassley suggesting over the summer that he might have time for a hearing after all.
Whitaker, an Iowa native, previously served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 until 2009. He managed a couple of dozen attorneys who prosecute federal crimes and represent the government in civil matters in half of Iowa.
Most of his career had been spent in private practice, including at a Des Moines law firm he founded with other Republican Party activists in 2009. Whitaker, who briefly worked as a conservative legal commentator on CNN, twice failed in bids for statewide elected office, most recently losing the 2014 GOP primary for the U.S. Senate.