Fears for Russia probe as Sessions fired

AFP, WASHINGTON

Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 1

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday fired US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, naming a loyalist to replace him in a move that raises questions over the future of the Russia investigation.

The axing capped more than a year of bitter criticism by Trump over his legal adviser’s decision to recuse himself from the probe into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election, paving the way for the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

In announcing the resignation in a tweet that thanked the former Alabama senator “for his service” — Trump right away named Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general.

Whitaker has been overtly critical of the broad scope granted to Mueller’s team to probe beyond allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in 2016, into other ties between Trump, his family and aides, and Russia.

In an opinion piece in August last year, he urged US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who oversees the probe — to “limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel.”

Whitaker now has the power to wrest oversight away from Rosenstein and take charge himself.

US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately called on Whitaker to recuse himself from the probe as his predecessor had, “given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations” on it.

US Senator Bernie Sanders went further, tweeting that “any attempt by the president or the Justice Department to interfere with Mueller’s probe would be an obstruction of justice and impeachable offense.”

Whitaker himself offered little about his intentions in a statement to reporters that praised his former boss as a “dedicated public servant” and said he would work to lead a department that conformed to the “highest ethical standards.”

Sessions was the first casualty of a Cabinet shakeup that had been expected from Trump following the midterm elections where his Republican party lost control of the House of Representatives.

“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions said in the first line of a letter addressed to Trump, released by the US Department of Justice.

Sessions was the first US senator to back Trump’s presidential run in 2016, giving him credibility.

After taking office in January last year, the former prosecutor launched tough law-and-order policies and a broad ban on Muslim travelers promised by Trump during the campaign.

He was in the vanguard of administration pushes to expand the ranks of federal law enforcement, fill courts with conservative judges and crack down on Central American gangs such as MS-13.

Mueller was expected in the coming weeks to unveil new indictments, possibly against 2016 campaign consultant Roger Stone and Trump’s son, Donald Jr.

In addition, the White House has shown concern that Mueller is investigating the finances of the Trump Organization and links to Russia.