Trump-Russia probe ‘under threat’ after Sessions fired
The Russia inquiry could be under threat after Donald Trump fired US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, top Democrats have warned.
Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi called the decision a “blatant attempt” to end or impede the investigation.
The Democrats, who captured the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s mid-term polls, have vowed to protect it.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is looking into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Matthew Whitaker, who has has been named acting attorney general, has previously criticised the investigation.
Some Republicans appear to have shared the Democrats’ concern over the future of the inquiry. Senator Susan Collins and Mitt Romney said it should not be impeded in any way.
Mr Mueller is investigating alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, resulting in a series of criminal charges against several Trump associates.
Mr Trump has vehemently denied any collusion took place, and repeatedly called for the inquiry to be shut down, calling it “the greatest political witch hunt in history”.
Democrats see this latest move as an attempt to do just that.
“It is impossible to read Attorney General Sessions’ firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine and end Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Ms Pelosi – a front runner to become House leader following this week’s mid-terms – tweeted.
She went on to argue that, “given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation”, Mr Whitaker should follow in Mr Sessions’ footsteps and recuse himself.
Her words were echoed by Democratic party Senate leader Chuck Schumer, who added: “Clearly, the president has something to hide.”
Why was Sessions fired?
The sacking followed months of Mr Trump criticising Mr Sessions, mainly for his decision to step aside from the Russia inquiry in March 2017.
Mr Sessions removed himself from the probe after Democrats accused him of failing to disclose contacts he had had with the Russian ambassador as a senior adviser to Mr Trump’s campaign.
In July 2017 Mr Trump told the New York Times: “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.”
In a resignation letter, Mr Sessions – a former Alabama senator who was an early supporter of Mr Trump – made clear the decision to go was not his own.
“Dear Mr President, at your request I am submitting my resignation,” he wrote in an undated letter.
What happens now?
Mr Whitaker can now assume control of the Mueller inquiry, which has been under the control of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein until now.
The president cannot directly fire the special counsel. But Mr Sessions’s replacement will have the power to do so, or end the inquiry.
Mr Whitaker expressed concerns over the investigation. For example, in August 2017, he wrote a piece for CNN in which he stated that looking into Mr Trump’s personal finances, or those of his family, “goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel”.
He went on to call on Mr Rosenstein to “order Mueller to limit the scope of the investigation” or risk the inquiry starting “to look like a political fishing expedition”.
It was the deputy attorney general who appointed Mr Mueller to lead the Russia inquiry, after Mr Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017.
The special counsel’s probe has also been investigating whether Mr Comey’s firing amounted to attempted obstruction of justice.
There has also been a question mark over Mr Rosenstein’s future since it was reported he had discussed invoking a constitutional clause to oust President Trump.
Is Trump trying to shut down Russia probe?
Analysis by Anthony Zurcher, BBC Washington
The presidential axe that had been hovering over Jeff Sessions for what has seemed like an eternity just came swinging down with a thud. Donald Trump had previously said he would wait until after the mid-term elections to decide his attorney general’s fate, and he did – but just barely.
And like that the duties of overseeing Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation shift from the man who appointed the special counsel, Rod Rosenstein, to a man who has been a critic of it, Department of Justice Chief of Staff Matthew Whitaker.
In an opinion piece for The Hill before he took the Department of Justice job, Mr Whitaker wrote that calls for an as yet-to-be-named independent prosecutor would be “just craven attempts to score cheap political points”. In April 2017, he wrote for CNN that any Mueller investigation into the president’s finances would be “going too far”.
What happens next is critical. Mr Mueller’s inquiry could continue unabated – although the special counsel must surely be considering tightening his timeline. There is also the possibility, however, that this is just the opening move of a White House effort to shut down the probe or keep its findings out of the public eye.