Sessions Out, Whitaker In

Sessions Out, Whitaker In November 8, 2018

It happened quicker than I thought it would. I figured Trump would at least wait a week or two to pull of his own Saturday Night Massacre, but he brought down the guillotine on Jeff Sessions less than 24 hours after the midterms. And going against the usual succession chain of command, he appointed Sessions’ chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, to replace him as Acting Attorney General.

Matthew Whitaker, Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff, will take over as acting attorney general, Mr. Trump said in a tweet announcing the shake-up.

“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well!” he wrote. “A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”

Whitaker was put in this position to bury or limit the Mueller investigation, that much is quite clear, but whether he’ll be allowed to do so is not yet a done deal. There are DOJ regulations to deal with on this sort of thing. We’ll see how it plays out. But Whitaker has made clear that he agrees with Trump that the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” and that, at the very least, its scope should be limited. He has also suggested that he might bury the findings of the investigation, not even forwarding them to Congress, much less making them public.

But the possibilities for what happens next are many. First, Rosenstein will have to provide Whitaker with a full briefing on where the investigation is — who is being investigated, for what crimes, what the connections might be to the Russians, and so forth. There’s a chance — a small chance — that once he sees the evidence being compiled, Whitaker might decide that the investigation must continue as it is. Or Rosenstein might get fired or resign, which would really shake things up.

But Mueller has options as well. He could quickly farm some of the investigative work out to other US Attorneys who are not under the special counsel mandate, as he has done with most of the Cohen investigation and the look at Trump’s business dealings and his CFO. In fact, I would bet that he has already made preparations to do exactly that. If he does that and Whitaker than tries to kill those investigations, they’ll have a much harder time pretending that it’s anything but obstruction of justice. And with the House now under the control of the Democrats, they could call Mueller to testify and make his findings public.

So there are lots of ways this could go and many other shoes to drop. But make no mistake about it, this is a very public attempt to obstruct justice. Trump has been crying out for someone to rid him of this meddlesome priest and Whitaker has made very clear that he’s willing to do it. But that doesn’t mean that Trump is out of the woods. At stake is nothing less than the rule of law. One of the bedrock principles of justice is that no one should be in charge of an investigation into their own possible criminal activity. We don’t let defense attorneys tell prosecutors what they can and cannot investigate. Trump should have no control whatsoever over the investigation. That this even needs to be said tells you how far down the road to tyranny we have gone.

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