Just hours after the midterm election polls had closed on Tuesday evening, Donald Trump made a bold move: he asked his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to resign.
Sessions obliged, and by Wednesday morning he was gone. He is currently being replaced by Trump loyalist Matt Whitaker, who is constitutionally entitled to be acting Attorney General for 210 days without being confirmed by Congress.
Yesterday, over 900 protests took place across America over Sessions’ ouster.
Politically, it is alarming when any president fires one of his foot soldiers, let alone such a high ranking one. But it is especially so in the case of Sessions, because he was the original Trump loyalist. He was the first sitting politician to endorse Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination, and it was his support that led to Trump’s bid being taken seriously by the political class.
Sessions has been dutifully carrying out Trump’s agenda ever since, and has been taking the administration’s ‘tough on immigration’ message across the country. So why ask your longest-serving right hand man to step down?
The answer to this question is alarming for two reasons. First, politically, it seems the only reason Trump wanted Sessions out was because back in 2017 he recused himself from overseeing the investigation into collusion with Russia during the presidential election. Sessions was accused of being involved in some way with the collusion and so he stepped away from the investigation and allowed it to be overseen by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
Trump has never forgiven him. The president has said again and again that he thinks Sessions did the wrong thing by him in recusing himself. There have been whispers about Trump’s intentions to fire Sessions ever since.
But it seemed the advisers around Trump saw the political danger and wanted to avoid giving voters the impression he was punishing Sessions for not winding down the Russia investigation. So instead of risking giving voters that impression, Trump waited until mere hours after the last ballots had been cast to make his move. That way, the voters wouldn’t have a chance to respond for another two years.
So Sessions’ ouster is concerning firstly because of the political deviance it lays bare. But it is even more concerning for a second reason: it is another page in the playbook of Trump behaving as though he is above the law.
It’s been well-reported that Trump has been growing increasingly angry about Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion, and the fact that the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives this week means they now have the power to move the investigation along. That is the last thing Trump wants, so he had to act fast.
In firing Sessions Trump not only appears tough on disloyalty but he also activates his constitutional power to appoint an acting Attorney General who can sit for up to 210 days with being confirmed by the Senate. 210 days, no checks, no balances. The person he has appointed is a man by the name of Matt Whitaker, a dedicated Trump loyalist who, it is assumed, will do his bidding.
With Whitaker able to hold the office for nine months without so much as a job interview, this means Trump’s supporter will be in a position to wind down, and even completely defund, the Russia investigation. Whitaker could immediately pull the funding for all the lawyers working on the investigation and stop it dead in its tracks.
We were alarmed when it began to emerge that there was possible collusion with Russia to swing the 2016 election. We were alarmed when Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught lying to Congress about his Russian connections. We were alarmed when it was reported that Trump issued an order to FBI director Jim Comey to “drop” the Flynn investigation. We were alarmed when Trump unceremoniously fired Jim Comey as a result. We added obstruction of justice to the list of crimes being investigated in connection with the Trump campaign and administration.
But now we have even more cause for alarm. Trump has gone a step further in attempt to sidestep the law. He has used his constitutional power to remove someone who showed deference to the law by recusing himself, and replaced him with someone who will not. He has found a path to stop the legal case being built against him. He has obstructed justice in an attempt to stop an investigation into his obstruction of justice.
Politically, firing Sessions was a devious move. But legally it is even worse – it is an escalation in Trump’s attempt to consolidate his power and remove any legal barriers that stand in his way.