Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced out of his position on Wednesday, following months of threats by President Trump over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the ongoing Russia investigation.
According to a letter he sent to the White House, Sessions tendered his resignation at the request of the president.
“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as Attorney General…I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” he wrote. “I have done so to the best of my ability, working to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice.”
Sessions wrote that he had “embraced” Trump’s directive “to be a law and order” department, prosecuting violent offenders at a higher rate than at any other point in the nation’s history. “We did our part to restore immigration enforcement. We targeted the opioid epidemic…and we have seen results,” he added.
The attorney general expressed thanks for the “fabulous men and women in law enforcement all over this country” and said he was proud to have “upheld the rule of law.”
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) November 7, 2018
According to Trump, Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ former chief of staff, will take over as “acting” attorney general until a replacement has been decided. Whitaker has publicly criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and allegations of collusion and obstruction by Trump and his associates. He personally targeted Mueller in an op-ed last year and theorized about how Sessions’ hypothetical replacement might go about “reduc[ing Mueller’s] budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”
The forced resignation comes 11 weeks after Trump suggested in an interview with Fox & Friends‘ Ainsley Earhardt that he might fire Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after the November midterm elections.
Sessions’ departure also comes amid increased pressure from the president to bring to an end Mueller’s probe. Sessions recused himself from the FBI’s broader Russia investigation in March 2017, two months prior to Mueller’s appointment by Rosenstein, who took over Sessions’ duties when Sessions withdrew from the case.
Sessions’ recusal was prompted by questions about his meetings with Russian officials during his time in the Senate and as an adviser to the Trump campaign. During his confirmation hearing in January 2017, Sessions was asked by both former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D) and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) about reports that members of the Trump campaign had been in contact with Russian officials during the election. Sessions responded to both of those inquiries by claiming he’d had no contact with any Russian officials during the campaign.
However, it later emerged that Sessions had, in fact, met with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak twice in 2016 — once in July that year, following a Heritage Foundation event at the Republican National Convention, and a second time at his office in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. Justice Department officials who spoke in support of Sessions during his confirmation hearing told the Washington Post that Sessions had taken the second meeting “in his capacity as a member of the armed services panel rather than in his role as a Trump campaign surrogate,” and that there was nothing untoward or out of the ordinary about it.
Shortly after Sessions stepped away from the Russia investigation, Trump’s fortunes began to crumble. On May 9, the president fired then-FBI Director James Comey, after asking him to halt the bureau’s investigation into national security adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials. When Comey wouldn’t relent, Trump sent a letter to his office, dismissing him from his post and claiming the FBI had lost confidence in him over his mishandling of the Clinton email probe. Trump admitted in an interview a few days later that he had fired Comey over “this Russia thing.”
Rosenstein, acting in Sessions’ stead, appointed Mueller to oversee the Russia investigation eight days later, giving the special counsel full rein over a widened scope that included both allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, as well as obstruction by the president, in connection with Comey’s dismissal.
Since that time, Sessions has been a favorite target of Trump’s ire. The president has frequently cited him as the root of his troubles, at one point telling The New York Times he never would have appointed Sessions attorney general if he had known ahead of time that the former Alabama senator would recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
“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,” he said in July 2017. “… How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself…I would have quickly picked someone else. So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined…and Sessions knew better than most that there was No Collusion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
More recently, Trump has cited Sessions in a number of critical tweets about the Russia investigation, which he has repeatedly referred to as a “witch-hunt” run amok.
“The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself…I would have quickly picked someone else,” Trump tweeted in June. “So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined…and Sessions knew better than most that there was No Collusion!”
In late August, Trump slammed Sessions again, telling Fox & Friends‘ Ainsley Earhardt that Sessions had never gained control of the Justice Department and suggesting he might fire him.
“He took the job and then he said, ‘I’m going to recuse myself,'” Trump said. “I said, ‘what kind of a man is this?'”
In response, Sessions issued a statement saying the Justice Department “would not be improperly influenced” by political pressure.
“I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in […],” he said. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action.”
This article has been updated to add information about Sessions’ immediate and acting replacement, Matthew Whitaker.