What Sessions’s Resignation Means for Robert Mueller

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference to announce a criminal law enforcement action involving China, at the Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. Standing behind Sessions is Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. The Justice Department and FBI leaders announced criminal charges and an operation to thwart Chinese economic espionage. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

His temporary replacement, Matthew Whitaker, has expressed skepticism over the scope of the Russia investigation—which he’ll now oversee.

Trump, who has been unsparing in publicly castigating his own Cabinet official, had been hinting that he would ask for Sessions’s resignation following the elections. Privately, Trump has reportedly called him an “idiot”and said that hiring him was a mistake. He first asked Sessions to resign following Mueller’s appointment to lead the probe in May 2017, according to The New York Times, but then wouldn’t accept his resignation.  

Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, told me that Trump’s decision to oust Sessions and replace him with Whitaker probably wouldn’t be considered an obstructive act in and of itself. But it could add to the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding a series of moves Trump has taken to try to stymie the Russia investigation since early last year, Honig said, including his firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his attacks on Sessions.

David Kris, a founder of Culper Partners who served as the assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s National Security Division from 2009 to 2011, said it was “obvious” that Trump was motivated “by his well-expressed feelings of dislike toward the Mueller investigation. There can be no serious question about that.” Kris, like Honig, said that ousting Sessions and appointing Whitaker “could be another element in a bill of particulars” used by prosecutors to specify the ways that Trump “has used the powers of the presidency toward a corrupt end.”

In reality, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller a fairly broad mandate when he appointed him following Sessions’s recusal in May 2017: Mueller was free to investigate not only Russia’s election interference and potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, but “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” as well. Mueller has also been farming out aspects of the investigation to prosecutors in New York and Washington, D.C., that don’t fall squarely within his mandate.

Moreover, intelligence and law-enforcement experts—as well as sitting members of Congress—have pointed out that the question of whether Russia has any kind of financial leverage over the president is highly relevant to determining whether Trump could have been coerced into conspiring with Moscow’s election interference in 2016. Indeed, several of the Justice Department and FBI officials who have investigated Trump’s campaign—and who have been attacked by Trump directly—have extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia.

David Laufman, a former high-ranking DOJ official who oversaw parts of the Russia investigation in his role as chief of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, said Trump’s “installation of a political loyalist who previously questioned the merits of the special counsel investigation must be viewed precisely for what it is: a preliminary assault on the special counsel’s latitude to complete his essential work and by extension on the rule of law.”

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Trump’s move could still backfire. Without the administration’s protection, Sessions may now find himself both more vulnerable and more inclined to cooperate with Mueller, who has been investigating a period last summer when Trump privately discussed firing Sessions and attacked him in a series of tweets. At one point, the FBI opened an investigation into whether Sessions perjured himself in congressional testimony when he said he had no contact with Russians during the campaign.“It’s possible that Sessions will now be either angry or, at a minimum, no longer feel any need to curry favor with the president,” Kris said. Sessions’s conversations during the campaign with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos have been closely scrutinized by the special counsel, moreover, and Sessions’s campaign-era interactions with Trump would not be covered by executive privilege, Kris noted.

Sessions had mostly laid low in the face of the president’s taunts, but he’s not shied away from defending himself when necessary. “I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in,” he said in August. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action.”

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