WASHINGTON ― Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at President Donald Trump’s request on Wednesday after enduring more than a year of criticism from a president enraged by the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe, which allowed for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.
“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions wrote in a letter delivered to Trump’s chief of staff and released by the Justice Department on Wednesday afternoon. Sessions wrote that he had been “honored to serve as Attorney General and have worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for the Presidency.”
In what read like a defense of his handling of the Russia probe, Sessions wrote that he had worked to “support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.”
Trump tweeted the news Wednesday afternoon, announcing he was naming Matt Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, as acting attorney general.
Whitaker now has oversight of the Mueller investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is no longer overseeing it, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.
Before he was Sessions’ chief of staff, Whitaker had written about limiting the Mueller probe, which he said could be a “witch hunt.” A Justice Department official said ethics officials had not yet reviewed whether Whitaker would have to recuse himself from any aspect of the Mueller probe given his prior commentary.
Implications For The Mueller Probe
Speculation that Sessions might be on his way out had ramped up ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, with Trump hinting that sweeping changes were coming to the DOJ.
Election Day saw the Democrats taking control of the House for the new Congress and promising a new level of oversight unlike what Trump has faced in his presidency so far. Republicans in the House have been reluctant to investigate Trump’s more controversial policies or to critically oversee the Russia probe. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House intelligence committee, has fiercely defended the president in the wake of the investigation. With Tuesday’s wins, the Democrats will gain subpoena power and are expected to double down on the probe.
Shortly after the news of Sessions’ departure broke, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the timing of Trump’s announcement was “very suspect.”
“Our paramount view is that any attorney general, whether this one or another one, should not be able to interfere with the Mueller investigation in any way,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
The last tweet Trump sent before announcing the news Wednesday was about polling regarding the Mueller investigation:
Sessions was an early supporter of Trump’s campaign and one of the first people nominated to his Cabinet. But the president grew publicly frustrated with Sessions’ leadership of the Justice Department, specifically his March 2017 decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged coordination with the Trump campaign. Shortly afterward, in May 2017, Rosenstein decided to appoint Mueller as special counsel to lead the FBI’s Russia investigation ― a decision that also angered Trump.
Trump And Sessions Spar
Trump’s frustration with Sessions became undeniable in late May of this year, when Trump tweeted that he wished he hadn’t named Sessions as head of the Justice Department.
The president’s remarks came a day after The New York Times reported that he’d asked Sessions to reverse his recusal from the Russia probe shortly after the attorney general announced it. Trump later pushed back, claiming that Sessions never told him he planned to recuse himself.
The president aired his frustration with Sessions again a month later, when he criticized the attorney general’s handling of a House investigation into possible bias against Trump within the Justice Department.
Trump took his critique of Sessions a step further in August, when he told a “Fox & Friends” host that his attorney general “never took control” of the Justice Department. Sessions fired back at Trump within hours, saying in a statement that he took control of the DOJ the day he was sworn in. He added that he has had “unprecedented success at effectuating the President’s agenda” and said the DOJ wouldn’t bow under political pressure.
“While I am Attorney General, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” Sessions said.
The next day, Trump continued to attack Sessions, saying in a tweet that the attorney general should be going after Hillary Clinton.
Sessions’ departure comes at one of the most turbulent times in the modern history of the Justice Department. Trump fired both acting Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey last year, with the latter move sparking Rosenstein’s decision to name a special counsel. Many key roles in the Justice Department remain unfilled. Trump has also repeatedly and publicly attacked Sessions, Rosenstein and the entire DOJ ― attacks Sessions didn’t little to thwart and which have taken a considerable toll on morale at the department.
In April, Sessions allegedly told the White House he would seriously consider resigning if Trump fired Rosenstein, people familiar with the exchange told The Washington Post.
In spite of attacks from the president, Sessions remained faithful in implementing many key aspects of Trump’s agenda. During his stint as the nation’s top law enforcement official, Sessions rolled back drug sentencing reforms, backed off federal investigations of local police departments, reversed an Obama-era policy that curtailed the Justice Department’s use of private prisons and relaxed restrictions on the use of civil asset forfeiture. He prioritized combating illegal immigration and getting tougher on crime, two issues Trump frequently highlighted as a candidate.
But the relationship between Trump and Sessions became strained as the Russia investigation dragged on. In early April, the president lashed out at his attorney general during a meeting with military leadership, calling Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation “a terrible mistake.” Trump also repeated his claim that he would have picked someone else to be attorney general if he had known Sessions would not lead the Russia inquiry.
Sessions had stepped away from the probe following revelations that he met with the Russian ambassador before the election.
“The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this … he certainly should have let us know if he was going to recuse himself, and we would have put a different attorney general in,” Trump said. “So he made what I consider to be a very terrible mistake for the country,”
Trump made a similar comment in a July 2017 interview with The New York Times, where he also labeled Sessions’ decision “very unfair to the president.” Soon after, the president again attacked Sessions, this time asking why the “beleaguered” attorney general wasn’t investigating former Democratic presidential nominee Clinton.
Sessions responded on Fox News, saying that being called “weak” and “beleaguered” was “kind of hurtful.”
But he indicated that he intended to stay in his job, and later became part of the investigation himself when he submitted to questioning by the special counsel’s office in January. The president said he was “not at all concerned” about the interview.
Trump once again slammed Sessions in February for not investigating a “potentially massive … abuse” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a claim his party had been making at the time to attack the Russia investigation. Sessions responded by pledging to continue doing his job with “integrity and honor.”
In early August, the president explicitly called on Sessions to halt the Russia investigation, which he referred to as a “Rigged Witch Hunt” in a tweet.
Trump’s numerous tweets about the probe have themselves become a part of the investigation, The New York Times reported. Mueller is determining whether social media posts might constitute obstruction of justice.
When the president first heard Sessions would not be overseeing the FBI’s Russia investigation, he went “ballistic,” according to ABC News. In June 2017, CNN reported that the attorney general had at one point offered his resignation following multiple tense conversations with the president.
Sessions is not alone in departing the Trump administration over the Russia scandal. In February 2017, national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned following reports about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. (He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.) Trump has also said that his decision to fire Comey was at least partly due to the probe.
Prior to his brief tenure in the Trump administration, Sessions represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate for two decades. While he was serving as a U.S. attorney in Alabama from 1981 to 1993, the Senate rejected Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship over concerns about his comments on race.
This story has been updated with more details on the resignation and circumstances surrounding it.
Antonia Blumberg, Lydia O’Connor, Sara Boboltz and Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.