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Mere hours after Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, it was announced that President Donald Trump had requested and accepted the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
This finally vindicated the persistent rumors since the early days of the administration that Sessions would eventually be fired by Trump, most likely due to Sessions’ recusal from all matters related to Russia as soon as he was confirmed.
The president wasted no time in also announcing Sessions’ interim replacement, naming the now-former attorney general’s chief of staff — Matthew Whitaker — as acting attorney general until a permanent replacement could be nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate.
The Hill reported that Whitaker — who has not recused himself from anything like Sessions had — will assume control of all investigations and prosecutions within the Justice Department, including the special counsel probe into Trump and alleged Russian election interference that is being led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, a probe that until now had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein due to Sessions’ recusal.
Indeed, DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores informed The Hill, “The Acting Attorney General is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.” Whitaker now being in charge of “all matters” under the DOJ is quite possibly bad news for Mueller, as he will assume oversight responsibilities from Rosenstein and has made his opinion of the Mueller probe — hint: He’s not a big fan — publicly known in the not-too-distant past.
President Trump has long characterized the Mueller probe as little more than a baseless “witch hunt” against him, and in an opinion article published by CNN in August 2017, Whitaker appeared to agree with that general assessment and wrote, “The President is absolutely correct. Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
At issue for Whitaker were the rumors at that time that Mueller was preparing to scour through the financial records of the Trump Organization in a search for any sort of financial crime that could be pinned on Trump or a Trump associate, even if it had no particular relation to the Russia investigation.
Whitaker wrote that “investigating Donald Trump’s finances or his family’s finances falls completely outside of the realm of his 2016 campaign and allegations that the campaign coordinated with the Russian government or anyone else. That goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel.”
Whitaker argued that Mueller did not have “broad authority” to investigate whatever he pleased, and pointed out that Mueller would need to specifically request additional authority from Rosenstein to dig into matters not explicitly laid out in Rosenstein’s initial letter authorizing the special counsel probe.
“If he were to continue to investigate the financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt,” he wrote.
“It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel,” Whitaker concluded at that time.
“If he doesn’t, then Mueller’s investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition. This would not only be out of character for a respected figure like Mueller, but also could be damaging to the President of the United States and his family — and by extension, to the country.”
Now that Whitaker is in charge of everything at the DOJ — including the special counsel probe formerly overseen by Rosenstein — Whitaker can impose the suggested limits on the scope of the investigation, if not shut the investigation down altogether … a possibility that was not lost on Congressional Democrats who’ve gone out of their way to defend and protect the investigation, who immediately demanded that Whitaker similarly recuse himself as Sessions had done.
The Hill reported that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, “Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from its oversight for the duration of his time as acting attorney general.”
House Minority Leader — and presumed next House Speaker — Nancy Pelosi said in a pair of tweets that Trump’s firing of Sessions was a “blatant” effort to “undermine and end” the Mueller investigation. She tweeted of Whitaker, “Given his record of threats to undermine & weaken the Russia investigation, Matthew Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller’s investigation. Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation. #FollowTheFacts”
Along those lines, Democratic New York Rep. Jerry Nadler — who stands poised to assume the chair of the House Judiciary Committee — tweeted, “Americans must have answers immediately as to the reasoning behind @realDonaldTrump removing Jeff Sessions from @TheJusticeDept. Why is the President making this change and who has authority over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation? We will be holding people accountable.”
Obviously, we don’t know yet what Whitaker intends to do with regard to the Mueller investigation, or even how long he will be acting attorney general and in charge of the Mueller investigation. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he issued some sort of revised scope of authority that limited the range to which Mueller may go in his presumed efforts to dig up dirt on Trump and his associates.