Sessions said in a letter to Trump on Wednesday: “At your request, I am submitting my resignation.” He took credit for reversing a recent rise in violent crime and for taking a hardline stance on illegal immigration and gangs.
Trump said in a tweet that Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff and a vocal critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry, had been appointed acting attorney general and that a permanent replacement would be nominated later.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well,” Trump said.
Sessions, a former US senator for Alabama, was one of the earliest supporters of Trump’s presidential campaign, but soon ran into trouble after being confirmed to the new administration.
He enraged Trump by recusing himself in March 2017 from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, following revelations that he had two undisclosed meetings with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the US.
Sessions had not disclosed the discussions when asked under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing in early 2017 about contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. Following his recusal the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, took over responsibility for Russia matters.
In May 2017, after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, Rosenstein shocked the White House by appointing the former FBI chief Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate Russia’s interference and any coordination with Trump’s campaign team.
That investigation has since continued without Sessions being involved, leaving Trump deeply frustrated. Trump has publicly lambasted Sessions for recusing himself, claiming he ought instead to have protected Trump against what the president has termed a “witch hunt” over Russia.
The appointment of Whitaker will stoke fears among Democrats that Trump is moving to shut down Mueller’s investigation, which has already led to guilty pleas on federal criminal charges by Trump’s former campaign chairman, his deputy campaign chairman, his first White House national security adviser and a former campaign foreign policy adviser.
Whitaker has publicly proposed choking off funding for Mueller’s investigation and wrote an article for CNN last year declaring that the special counsel was “going too far” and needed to be reined in.
“The president is absolutely correct,” Whitaker said, after Trump suggested Mueller would exceed his remit by looking into the president’s finances. “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York, the likely new chairman of the House judiciary committee, said the American public “must have answers immediately” on Trump’s reasons for firing Sessions.
“Why is the president making this change and who has authority over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation? We will be holding people accountable,” Nadler said on Twitter.
It was not immediately clear on Wednesday whether Trump would move to give responsibility for the Russia inquiry to Whitaker or if Rosenstein would remain in control until a permanent replacement for Sessions were confirmed.
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, said: “Even though Whitaker is only ‘acting’ AG now that Sessions is out, it looks like Whitaker will become Mueller’s minder effective immediately.” Tribe suggested the development was in itself an impeachable offence.
The firing of Sessions will bring to an end a bitter public dispute between the attorney general and his president, unprecedented in recent times.
In August, Trump sharply criticised Sessions in a television interview the day after the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud – both cases having stemmed from the Mueller investigation.
Trump said: “I put in an attorney general that never took control of the justice department.”
Sessions struck back with a statement that said: “I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in … While I am attorney general the actions of the department will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”
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