Anthony Zurcher– BBC North America reporter
Donald Trump may not be about to shut down Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation. If that’s what he’s trying to do, however, this is what the first step would look like.
By finally dropping the axe on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president ensures that a much friendlier, more partisan official is now in charge of the probe. Because of Mr Sessions’ recusal from the matter due to his ties to the Trump campaign and his own questionable contacts with Russian officials, oversight duty had fallen to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
It was Mr Rosenstein who had appointed Mr Mueller and given him a broad mandate to investigate possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign and any subsequent matters emerging from the inquiry.
With Mr Sessions gone, that responsibility now shifts to Department of Justice Chief-of-Staff Matthew Whitaker, who has expressed scepticism about the investigation in the past.
Mr Rosenstein – as the second in command of the Justice Department – would typically have been in line to take over all acting attorney general duties, so the White House decision to opt for Mr Whitaker is revealing.
In an opinion piece for The Hill before he took his current job, Mr Whitaker wrote that calls for an as yet-to-be-named independent prosecutor would be “just craven attempts to score cheap political points”. In August 2017 he wrote for CNN that any Mueller investigation into the president’s finances would be “going too far”.
He also, during a CNN interview, speculated that the best way to undermine the probe would be to make its budget so low “his investigation grinds to almost a halt”.
Mr Whitaker served a short stint as a US attorney under President George W Bush. He also ran for senator of Iowa as a Republican in 2014, losing in the primary. His most recent job before joining the Justice Department was as the director of a conservative government watchdog group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. That’s not exactly a traditional path to the attorney general suite.
Mr Trump’s announcement leaves Democrats scrambling. While they just won a majority in the House of Representatives, and the oversight powers that go along with it, they’re not in charge yet. That doesn’t come for another two months.
In the meantime, it’s still the Republicans in control – and conservative ranks are already forming behind the president’s decision.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who once said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Mr Trump fired his attorney general, now is thanking Mr Sessions for his service.
The stage has been set for further action.
It could all be much ado about nothing, of course. Mr Mueller’s inquiry could continue in the short term unabated – although the special counsel must surely be considering tightening his timeline in light of today’s developments.
There had already been hints that Mr Mueller’s pre-election “quiet period” was about to come to an end. And, in fact, if the former FBI director is as meticulous as he’s reputed to be, he might have already made plans to deal with exactly this contingency.
That’s stepping into the unknown, however.
What’s certain is that if the special counsel tries to issue new indictments or expand his inquiry into new areas, Mr Whitaker is now in a position to rebuff those requests. If Mr Mueller files a report detailing the final results of his inquiry, the new acting attorney general could keep the document from ever becoming public.
Those would be half-measures and insurance policies to limit damage. The president may also decide to instruct Mr Whitaker to fire the entire Mueller team – something Mr Trump said he has the power to do in a press conference earlier on Wednesday.
There’s some doubt about whether the president is right, but with the mid-terms behind him he could be itching to settle this Mueller business once and for all. And he’s one step closer to being able to do just that.
That almost certainly wouldn’t be the end of this story, but it’s the beginning of a new, highly fraught chapter.