Potential Russia probe jolt as Sessions forced out

Top News | 9 Nov 2018

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsel's Russia investigation.

The move has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller's probe given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker - until now Sessions' chief of staff - has questioned the inquiry's scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the investigation.

Congressional Democrats, concerned about protecting Mueller, called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation in its final but potentially explosive stages.

That duty has belonged to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and closely monitors his work.

The resignation, in a one-page letter to Trump, came one day after Republicans lost control of the House and was the first of several expected post-midterms cabinet and White House departures.

Though Sessions was an early and prominent campaign backer of Trump, his departure letter lacked effusive praise for the president and made clear the resignation came "at your request."

Sessions wrote: "Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as attorney general, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country."

The departure was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions' tenure, when he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because of his campaign advocacy and following the revelation that he had met twice in 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Trump blamed the recusal for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation two months later and began examining whether Trump's hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct the probe.

The probe has so far produced 32 criminal charges and guilty pleas from four former Trump aides. But the work is not done.

Mueller's grand jury, for instance, has heard testimony for months about Trump confidant Roger Stone and what advance knowledge he may have had about Russian hacking of Democratic e-mails. Mueller's team has also been pressing for an interview with Trump. And the department is expected at some point to receive a confidential report of Mueller's findings, though it is unclear how much will be public.

Separately, Justice Department prosecutors in New York secured a guilty plea from Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who said Trump directed him to arrange hush-money payments before the 2016 election to two women who said they had sex with Trump.

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