The unsurprising but completely shocking firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Civil rights groups will not miss Sessions, but the manner of his departure and its potential consequences are deeply troubling

 

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Jeff Sessions, an archconservative former Alabama senator, has resigned as Attorney General at the request of the Trump administration, just one day after the midterm elections. Trump has reportedly been itching to push out Sessions for months, but was advised to wait until after the popular vote. He has wasted no time.

In many ways, Session was a Trump loyalist. He helped implement the president’s brutal immigration policies, attempting to rescind the DACA bill, which extended protection from deportation to over 700,000 young people who were brought to the US undocumented as children, and implementing the monstrously cruel “zero tolerance” border policy that separated migrant families at the border, and that may have effectively orphaned scores of children.

In his resignation letter, Sessions also drew attention to his “tough on crime” approach. He reintroduced harsher sentencing for drug offenses, and signed a memo asking prosecutors to consider the death penalty for large drug dealing offenses. He also instructed the justice department to pull back from federal investigations into police abuses.

But despite all this, Trump was furious at Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation, conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Sessions did so because of questions surrounding his own contacts with Russian officials.

Trump told the New York Times that had he known Sessions would recuse himself, he would never have appointed him attorney general. He was also annoyed that Sessions would not investigate alleged links between Hillary Clinton and Russia. He told the world, via his Twitter account, that Sessions was “VERY weak” and “DISGRACEFUL”.

“Whether Trump realizes it or not, he has let his fury over the Russia investigation threaten his policy agenda — throwing his already chaotic presidency into even more chaos,” Vox observed.

Trump announced on Twitter that he was temporarily replacing Sessions with the former attorney general’s chief-of-staff Matthew Whitaker and would seek a permanent replacement “at a later date”. Under ordinary circumstances, one might have expected the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take over, but Trump is also furious at Rosenstein’s handling of the Mueller Investigation, which is looking into possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia, particularly after Trump’s long-term personal fixer Michael Cohen became the subject of an FBI raid and criminal investigation earlier this year.

Whittaker is a Trump loyalist who has been described as the White House’s “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department. Two months before he joined the department, he wrote in a column for CNN that the Mueller inquiry would be going too far if it investigated the president’s finances.

“It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel. If he doesn't, then Mueller's investigation will eventually start to look like a political fishing expedition,” Whitaker wrote.

Trump’s new attorney general will be able to take control of the Mueller investigation, and could curtail it should they so desire. While Trump knows that a Democratic-controlled Congress will ramp up the legal pressure on the administration and its senior officials, he is clearly banking that his new appointee will at least release him from the pressure of the Mueller investigation.

In a press statement, the American Civil Liberties Union’s executive director Anthony D. Romero described Sessions as “the worst attorney general in modern American history” and an “egregious violator of civil rights” – but it sounded the alarm over the manner of Sessions departure:

The dismissal of the nation’s top law enforcement official is a huge step, one that should not be based on political motives – and certainly should not be done to protect the president or his cronies from the law. While the constitution grants the president the authority to dismiss his cabinet members, we will be keeping a close watch on the future of the special counsel’s investigation and the impact of the appointment of a new Attorney General. The Senate must demand that any nominee for attorney general must commit to not interfere in the special counsel investigation, and continue to have Robert Mueller operate under the special counsel regulation.

Sessions will not be missed by Americans committed to social justice and civil rights, but Trump’s firing of the head of the justice department, seemingly in order to influence an investigation into himself and his team, demonstrates a shocking and deeply worrying level of judicial interference.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.