From Smirking Chimp
The day after the midterm elections, Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointed Trump loyalist Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general. Whitaker, who has criticized the Mueller probe in the past, could fire Robert Mueller or defang his investigation.
Although Sessions was faithfully carrying out Trump's draconian agenda on civil rights, immigration and policing, the president had Sessions in his sights since the latter recused himself from the Russia investigation in March 2017. Sessions's recusal resulted from his failure to disclose at his confirmation hearing that he met with Russian officials when he was a Trump campaign adviser in 2016. The recusal paved the way for the appointment of Mueller as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May 2017.
Champing at the bit to fire Sessions, Trump was convinced by his advisers to wait until after the midterms to avoid harming GOP candidates.
Sessions's recusal infuriated Trump because it resulted in Rosenstein appointing Mueller as special counsel. Mueller has been methodically following his mandate to investigate "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump" and "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
So far, Mueller's probe has produced criminal charges against 32 individuals, including 26 Russians, and four close Trump aides have entered guilty pleas.
Whitaker Will Try to Defang Mueller Without Firing Him
An official from the Justice Department told The Washington Post that Whitaker would replace Rosenstein as the decision-making authority over Mueller's investigation.
But Whitaker has a likely conflict of interest that could be examined by Justice Department ethics advisers who may pressure him to recuse himself. Whitaker has criticized the Mueller probe on television and in writing. In light of what happened to Sessions, Whitaker is unlikely to recuse himself. Indeed, Trump invariably fired Sessions and appointed Whitaker in order to limit the Mueller investigation.
In August 2017, Whitaker penned an op-ed for CNN, titled, "Mueller's Investigation of Trump is Going Too Far." Whitaker opined that investigating Trump's or his family's finances would go beyond the scope of the special counsel's appointment and "would raise serious concerns" that the probe was "a mere witch hunt."
Whitaker also wrote an op-ed in The Hill defending Trump for firing FBI Director James Comey, which led to the appointment of Mueller.
In a July 2017 appearance on CNN, Whitaker defended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian operative to get "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. That meeting constitutes probable cause of violation of federal campaign laws. But Whitaker stated that as a political candidate, "You would always take that meeting."
During the same CNN appearance, Whitaker said he "could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt."
Whitaker will have control over the Mueller probe. He could preclude avenues of investigation and prevent Mueller from issuing subpoenas or requesting indictments. Whitaker can make Mueller justify "any investigative or prosecutorial step," and block any actions he feels are "inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices," according to the Justice Department regulation. But if Whitaker curtails anything Mueller does, he must notify Congress.