WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday after a yearlong public shaming campaign that raised questions about whether the president improperly interfered with the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Trump, who requested Sessions’ resignation, named Matthew Whitaker to serve as interim attorney general. Whitaker was Sessions’ chief of staff and had been considered for a variety of jobs in the Trump administration, including the No. 2 post at Justice or as White House counsel.
“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as attorney general of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” Sessions said in a seven-paragraph letter. “I have done so to the best of my ability to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, was at the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a meeting.
The departure of Sessions, one of Trump’s most vocal and earliest supporters during the 2016 campaign, was expected for weeks.
Laser-focused on Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Trump savaged him in interviews, tweets and news conferences as “beleaguered,” often expressing “disappointment” in his attorney general.
In September, Trump took his criticism to a new level when he disassociated Sessions from the administration, including the attorney general’s border enforcement efforts.
“I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” Trump said in an interview with Hill.TV. “I’m not happy at the border, I’m not happy with numerous things, not just this.”
The broadsides became even more pointed in recent weeks, when Trump described Sessions as “disgraceful” for asking the Justice Department’s inspector general – not prosecutors – to review Republican allegations of surveillance abuses related to the monitoring of a former Trump campaign aide.
Sessions’ recusal in March 2017 for failing to disclose election-year meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – and Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 – prompted the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as the Justice Department’s special counsel to direct the wide-ranging Russia inquiry.
Mueller’s appointment and the inquiry’s expansion to include a deep examination of the Trump family’s finances and possible obstruction of justice stoked the president’s attacks on the attorney general.
Trump’s regular stream of Twitter attacks against his own Justice Department and attorney general triggered public concern that the president was trying to wrest greater control of the Russia investigation.
With Sessions out, Trump could appoint an attorney general without Russia conflicts, allowing for a possible takeover of the investigation he calls a “witch hunt.”
“I think you have to ask the question of who benefits from Sessions’ removal,” said Jimmy Gurule, who was an assistant attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. “And the answer is President Trump.”
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, credited Sessions with “maintaining unusual equanimity and dignity under fire” while dutifully carrying out Trump’s agenda on a range of issues, including immigration and violent crime enforcement.
“He’s done all this under enormous pressure, and we know what that is,” Mukasey told USA TODAY, referring to unrelenting criticism from the president. “I can’t imagine how he’s been able to do this.”
Mukasey, a Sessions confidant whose portrait hangs in the attorney general’s fifth-floor conference room, characterized the atmosphere created by Trump’s public attacks as akin to a “psycho-drama.”
Rather than walk away in the face of Trump’s attacks, Mukasey said, Sessions remained at the helm of the sprawling agency “for the welfare of the department.”
“For him to have done that is incredible,” Mukasey said.
In July 2017, Trump told The New York Times he would never have appointed the former Alabama senator had he known Sessions would disqualify himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
He repeated the line in a Rose Garden news conference the following week. “If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have, quite simply, picked somebody else,” Trump said. “So I think that’s a bad thing, not for the president but for the presidency.”
The president called his own attorney general “beleaguered,” slammed him for failing to investigate former political opponent Hillary Clinton and questioned the significance of his early loyalty during the campaign.