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Trump fires Sessions to constrain Mueller: can the Senate protect him?

Experts agree that firing the attorney general is an attempt from the White House to silence the Russia probe

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, left, looks at his previous boss, Jeff Sessions, right. Reuters
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, left, looks at his previous boss, Jeff Sessions, right. Reuters

US President Donald Trump’s swift firing of attorney general Jeff Sessions one day after the midterm elections signals urgency in addressing one issue: the Mueller probe.

As indictments loom and amid reports the president’s own son Donald Jr has told friends that he may be indicted, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is now a threat to the Trump circle. Experts agree that firing Mr Sessions on Wednesday is an attempt from the White House to silence, defund or at least constrain Mr Mueller’s work.


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That’s why the next natural step by Mr Trump was appointing Matthew Whitaker, Mr Session’s chief of staff, as acting attorney general. Mr Whitaker criticised the special counsel and said the investigation has gone too far. With him, and not Mr Session’s deputy Rod Rosenstein, overseeing the probe,it’s now possible that concealment of indictments or cutting funding for the probe is on the cards.

Ken Gude, a legal scholar at the Centre for American Progress, told The National that the “only reason to force out Sessions – who has been delivering on Mr Trump’s agenda, and skipping the Department of Justice succession is to avoid Mr Rosenstein being acting attorney general – is to obstruct the investigation.”

“Mr Whitaker is publicly on the record saying Bob Mueller has gone too far and urging Mr Rosenstein to hamper the investigation,” Mr Gude said.

Paul Rosenzweig, a legal expert and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, agreed. He said that Mr Trump only fired his attorney general because he can replace him with Mr Whitaker.

Can Donald Trump fire Mr Mueller? He can, Mr Rosenzweing told The National. But that would be “directly more explosive”.

Mr Trump hinted as much in today’s press conference. “I could fire everybody right now, but I don’t want to stop it because politically I don’t like stopping it,” he said.

Another reason behind Mr Trump’s timing could be the new Democratic majority in Congress that will control the gavel in January, raising the question of what would happen to the Mueller probe between now and then.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who would head the intelligence committee, tweeted immediately that the “investigation and the independence of the DOJ must be protected. Whitaker and any nominee must commit to doing both. We will protect the rule of law.”

Mr Trump’s allies are perplexed by his decision, reported Maggie Haberman of The New York Times. Firing Mr Sessions guarantees an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee:

In the Senate, whether now with a 51-49 Republican majority or after January where the Republicans will add two or three seats, Mr Trump is also receiving warnings from his own party not to impede Mr Mueller’s investigation.

Republican Senator Susan Collins tweeted: “It is imperative that the administration not impede the Mueller investigation. I’m concerned Rod Rosenstein will no longer be overseeing the probe. Special counsel Mueller must be allowed to complete his work without interference – regardless of who is AG.”

Outgoing Republican senator Jeff Flake urged the Senate to pass a bill to protect Mr Mueller. “Earlier this year, we passed S.2644, the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would safeguard Robert Mueller’s investigation. Leader [Mitch] McConnell should bring the bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible.”

Senator Lamar Alexander, also Republican, threatened that no new attorney general will be confirmed if he or she shuts down the Mueller probe:

Newly elected Senator Mitt Romney also warned against meddling in the investigation:

But other influential or moderate Republican Senators such as Richard Burr, Ben Sasse or Lisa Murkowski did not mention Mr Mueller on Tuesday.

Updated: November 8, 2018 10:38 AM