Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Wednesday at President Trump’s request, ending the tenure of a beleaguered loyalist whose relationship with the president was ruined when Sessions recused himself from control of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a letter to Trump, Sessions wrote he had been “honored to serve as Attorney General” and had “worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for the presidency.” Trump tweeted that Sessions would be replaced on an acting basis by Matthew G. Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions’s chief of staff.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!” Trump tweeted. “A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
A Justice Department official said Whitaker would assume authority over the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — though his role could be reviewed by ethics officials. Because Sessions was recused, the special counsel probe had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who also has had strained relations with Trump, but is considered safe in his position for the moment.
A legal commentator before he came into the Justice Department, Whitaker has mused publicly about how a Sessions replacement might reduce Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” He also wrote in a September 2017 column that Mueller had “come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing,” after CNN reported that the special counsel could be looking into Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia.
A White House official said Trump had been held at bay to demand Sessions’s resignation until after the Tuesday’s midterm elections, but he talked eagerly about ousting his attorney general as soon as the votes were tallied. The person said other Cabinet officials were also in jeopardy.
Sessions received a phone call Wednesday morning from White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — before the president held a news conference — telling him the president wanted Sessions to resign, an administration official said.
The White House official said that Trump liked Whitaker, who was a “backslapping, football kind of guy” who had briefed Trump on many occasions.
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who ran an unsuccessful campaign for a Senate seat in Iowa, played college football at the University of Iowa.
“The president never wanted to see Jeff. So a lot of other people at DOJ got to see the president,” the person said.
Two close Trump advisers said, though, that the president does not plan on keeping Whitaker permanently.
“I don’t see him staying,” said one Trump aide. “I think the president will be a lot more deliberate in interviewing potential replacements for Jeff Sessions.”
Early in the administration, Sessions also gave Trump a resignation letter and let him hold onto it. The move deeply concerned White House aides, including then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who told Sessions that Trump would use the letter to manipulate him.
“You have to get that letter back,” Priebus told Sessions, according to people familiar with the conversation.
Despite the tension with the White House, Sessions had described the position of top law enforcement officer as his dream job and he pursued his conservative agenda with gusto. But he also had to live with sometimes humiliating attacks from a president he couldn’t seem to please and the suspicions of career staff members who feared the politicization of a Justice Department that prides itself on its independence.
Department veterans have expressed concerns that Trump’s repeated public attacks on Sessions, the Justice Department and the FBI could cause lasting damage to federal law enforcement.
Sessions, 71, was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and in many ways he had been the biggest supporter of the president’s policies on immigration, crime and law enforcement.
But all of those areas of agreement were overshadowed by the Russia investigation — specifically, Sessions’s recusal from the inquiry after it was revealed that he had met more than once with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the 2016 campaign even though he had said during his confirmation hearing that he had not met with any Russians.
Trump has never forgiven Sessions for that decision, which he regarded as an act of disloyalty that denied him the protection he thought he deserved from his attorney general. “I don’t have an attorney general,” he said in September.
Privately, Trump has derided Sessions as “Mr. Magoo,” a cartoon character who is elderly, myopic and bumbling, according to people with whom he has spoken.
Trump also had repeatedly threatened or demanded Sessions’s ouster behind closed doors, only to be convinced by aides that removing him could provoke a political crisis within the Republican Party, where many conservatives stayed loyal to the former senator. In recent months, however, some of those allies had signaled a willingness to tolerate Sessions’s removal after the midterm election.
Democrats have moved gingerly around Sessions — fearful that if he were driven from office, his replacement could curtail the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
A person close to Sessions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank, said the attorney general shared the president’s frustration with the pace of the Russia inquiry, and wished that it had been completed. But Sessions also thought that by staying in the job, he had protected the integrity of the investigation, the person said. In the long run, Sessions is convinced that the country will be better served by the investigation proceeding naturally, as the findings will be more credible to the American public, the person said.
Mueller is looking into Trump’s statements seeking to fire Sessions or force his resignation in an effort to determine whether those acts are part of a pattern of attempted obstruction of justice, according to people close to the investigation.
Earlier this year, Mueller’s team questioned witnessesabout Trump’s private comments and state of mind in late July and early August of last year, around the time he belittled his “beleaguered” attorney general on Twitter, these people said. The questions sought to determine whether the president’s goal was to oust Sessions so he could replace him with someone who would take control of the investigation, these people said.
Sessions usually does not respond to the president’s criticism, but he has at times pushed back.
After one particularly blistering tweet in February, in which the president said Sessions’s actions were “DISGRACEFUL!” he issued a statement: “As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.’’