One day after Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives, Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. (Although Sessions technically resigned his position, the first line of his resignation letter is “at your request, I am submitting my resignation.”)
Trump also named Sessions’ former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general. Whitaker, a former US attorney, rejoined the Justice Department after authoring an op-ed attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
In that op-ed, Whitaker claimed that Mueller “would be crossing a line if he started investigating the finances of Trump and his family.”
“Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter appointing special counsel Robert Mueller does not give Mueller broad, far-reaching powers in this investigation,” Whitaker falsely claimed. Instead, Whitaker argued that Mueller “is only authorized to investigate matters that involved any potential links to and coordination between two entities — the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”
In reality, the letter appointing Mueller provides that the special counsel may investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” It is common practice for federal investigators who discover evidence of a second crime while investigating something else to also probe the newly discovered evidence. And, as Whitaker appears to concede in his op-ed, Rosenstein could always have given Mueller “additional authority under Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.”
Last May, federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected many of the same arguments Whitaker raised in his op-ed.
The ordinary practice when an attorney general leaves office, and when a Senate-confirmed deputy is already in place, is to let that deputy act as attorney general. Trump’s decision to place Whitaker over Rosenstein was an intentional — and unusual — choice. Whitaker’s op-ed may very well explain why Trump made this choice.