Democrats call for Sessions' successor to recuse himself from Russia probe

Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (right) will be succeeded on a temporary basis by his chief of staff, Mr Matthew Whitaker.
Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (right) will be succeeded on a temporary basis by his chief of staff, Mr Matthew Whitaker.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The news that Attorney-General Jeff Sessions had resigned on Wednesday (Nov 7) at President Donald Trump's request unnerved congressional Democrats, who immediately called for Mr Sessions' successor to recuse himself from oversight of the Russia investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Republicans, meanwhile, largely avoided any mention of the Mueller probe in their statements on Mr Sessions' departure, with several saying they were looking forward to working with Mr Trump to find a long-term successor to the attorney-general. Mr Sessions will be succeeded on a temporary basis by his chief of staff, Mr Matthew Whitaker.

The announcement came just hours after Mr Trump threatened at a news conference to retaliate with a "war-like posture" against Democrats should they try to investigate him in the wake of their House victory on Tuesday.

It also came after Republicans bolstered their ranks in the Senate with several new members, who are ardent supporters of the President.

Some Democrats, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, warned that any move by Mr Trump to limit the Mueller probe would trigger a "constitutional crisis".

"Our paramount view is that any attorney-general, whether this one or another one, should not be able to interfere with the Mueller investigation in any way," Mr Schumer said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

The New York Democrat was caught off guard by Mr Sessions' resignation, learning of the news when an aide passed him a note at the start of his post-election news conference.

 
 
 
 

The GOP padded its slim 51-49 Senate majority on Tuesday, flipping Democratic-held seats in Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota, and three outstanding races are leaning toward Republicans.

Asked whether the loss of more seats makes it more difficult for Democrats to block an attorney-general nominee they deemed inappropriate, Mr Schumer said the rules of the upper chamber already only require a simple majority, so it made no difference.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a tweet that it was "impossible to read Attorney General Sessions' firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine & end Special Counsel Mueller's investigation".

Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a tweet that the country needs answers as to the reasons behind Mr Sessions' removal.

"Why is the President making this change and who has authority over Special Counsel Mueller's investigation? We will be holding people accountable," Mr Nadler asked.

Other Democrats focused specifically on Mr Whitaker, with Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling it "a break the glass moment".

"Replacing the Attorney-General with a non-Senate-confirmed political staffer is highly irregular and unacceptable," he said in a statement, urging Republicans to join Democrats in demanding that Mr Whitaker recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe.

He also said he would introduce new legislation to "ensure that Congress and the American people see the results of Special Counsel Mueller's work".

Many Republicans had previously voiced opposition to the idea of Mr Trump removing Mr Sessions and were angered by the President's persistent public attacks on one of their former Senate colleagues. But on Wednesday, they were noticeably less critical.

Last year, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, had declared himself "100 per cent" behind Mr Sessions and warned that "there will be holy hell to pay" if Mr Trump fired his attorney-general.

On Wednesday, Mr Graham, who has transformed into one of Mr Trump's strongest defenders in recent months, gave his blessing to the President's move.

"I look forward to working with President @realDonaldTrump to find a confirmable, worthy successor so that we can start a new chapter at the Department of Justice and deal with both the opportunities and challenges our nation faces," Mr Graham said in a tweet.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, struck a similar note, thanking Mr Sessions for his service and saying that he looks "forward to working with him in any future endeavours".

"Throughout his career, as a prosecutor, a senator and as attorney-general, he remained steadfast in his commitment to the rule of law and his love of our great nation," Mr McConnell said, making no mention of the Russia investigation.

Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, expressed the hope that Mr Trump would select a candidate who backs efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system. Mr Sessions has been resistant to the effort.

"I want to thank Jeff Sessions for his service to our nation," Mr Scott said. "I am hopeful that President Trump will take this opportunity to nominate a replacement that is invested in criminal justice reform."

Among those criticising Mr Trump's move on Wednesday was former attorney-general Eric Holder, who drew a direct line between Mr Sessions's removal and the Mueller probe.

"Anyone who attempts to interfere with or obstruct the Mueller inquiry must be held accountable," Mr Holder said in a tweet. "This is a red line. We are a nation of laws and norms not subject to the self-interested actions of one man."