What Happened This Week:
Less than 24 hours after U.S. midterm elections wrapped up, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at the request of President Donald Trump. Sessions’ chief of staff Matthew Whitaker was asked to take the helm of the Justice Department until a new Attorney General is confirmed by the Senate. Cue the political firestorm.
Why It Matters:
Given his role in the Trump campaign, Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election, leaving oversight of the Mueller investigation to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But instead of announcing that Rosenstein would assume the position of Acting Attorney General, Trump turned to a passionate loyalist to take charge of overseeing an investigation Whitaker has publicly called a “witch hunt.” An already-politicized probe just got that much more political.
What Happens Next:
The Democrats will scream about “obstruction of justice,” but there’s not much they can do about it until January when the next Congress gets sworn in — and even then, their options are limited. In the meantime, congressional Democrats could challenge Whitaker’s appointment under the Vacancies Reform Act, given that Sessions did not die or become incapacitated but was asked to step aside by the President. In all likelihood, Whitaker will remain acting Attorney General until a new person can be confirmed to the post by the Senate, which likely won’t come until February at the earliest.
As for the Mueller investigation itself, things look ominous. Assuming Justice Department ethics officials give Whitaker the green light (or he ignores a ruling that he should recuse himself) the acting Attorney General will likely take steps to rein in Mueller and his investigators. Look for Whitaker to reduce Mueller’s operating budget, pull lawyers and investigators currently working on Mueller’s team back to DOJ, refuse to authorize grand jury subpoenas or indictments, and/or push Mueller to wrap up the probe as soon as possible. The most drastic act he could take is to shut down the investigation completely, though that would risk a backlash from Congress and make it more likely Trump would be impeached by the Democratic House.
The Key Quote That Sums It All Up:
“I stay away from it. But you know what I do? I let it just go on. They’re wasting a lot of money, but I let it go on, because I don’t want to do that. But you’re right; I could end it right now. I could say, ‘That investigation is over.” US President Donald Trump at Wednesday’s marathon press conference.
The One Major Misconception About It:
That Donald Trump is now in a stronger position because a loyalist is ready to take the reins of the Mueller investigation. If you don’t think Mueller expected a move like this from Trump post-midterms, you don’t know Robert Mueller. For Trump, the danger remains, it just changes shape.
The One Thing You Should Read About It:
This op-ed Whitaker wrote for CNN back in August 2017, before he joined the Trump administration. It’s the closest to an unvarnished opinion on the Mueller Investigation from Whitaker that we’re likely to get.
The Smart Thing to Say About It:
Democrats winning back the House isn’t entirely bad for Trump. He now has a concrete enemy in Congress to do battle with, and he gets to make the Mueller investigation a partisan fight between him and Congressional Democrats, which is where he thrives.
What No One Is Saying About It:
I enjoyed those 12 hours of downtime we got from US politics on Wednesday morning. Really rejuvenating.
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