Sessions’ interim replacement, acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, has been an outspoken critic of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
But Trump’s administration still hasn’t provided official confirmation of Whitaker’s acting appointment. And now, they’re trying a new strategy to undermine the ongoing Russia investigation, selecting a new attorney general who is poised to restrict Mueller’s probe, should he be confirmed.
Whitaker — whose business history and qualifications are questionable at best — reportedly never passed a Justice Department (DOJ) ethics review or provided answers on whether he would recuse himself from matters regarding Mueller’s investigation, which has racked up more than 100 criminal charges against dozens of people, including guilty pleas from Trump’s former national security adviser, former campaign chair, former attorney, and multiple former campaign advisers since it opened in May 2017.
Trump knew the clock was ticking on that temporary arrangement and became increasingly panicked over Mueller’s probe. As a result, the president on Friday selected former attorney general William Barr as his pick to lead the DOJ.
“He was my first choice since day one,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “He’ll be nominated.”
Barr, who served under the late President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, has echoed much of the president’s rhetoric on Mueller, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former FBI director James Comey. He has claimed a debunked conspiracy theory about Clinton and uranium is deserving of more DOJ attention than Trump’s connections to Russia, and that the former first lady should face additional investigations.
The former attorney general, who urged Bush to issue pardons over the Iran-Contra scandal that occurred while the latter was vice president, has also echoed Trump’s rhetoric about the partisan makeup of Mueller’s special counsel.
Since Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in March 2017, just a month into Trump’s presidency, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has overseen Mueller’s probe. But Senate confirmation of Barr would put a Trump ally in charge of the special counsel for the first time since it was launched just over 18 months ago.
In the past, Trump has signaled his willingness to use staff appointments as a counterweight against the Russia investigation.
In June, Trump, still upset that Sessions had recused himself from the probe the year prior, tweeted that he would have selected a different attorney general if he had known Sessions’ plans ahead of time.
“The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself,” he tweeted. “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!”
Again, in August, Trump suggested he would fire Sessions after the midterms, over his refusal to remain loyal to the president. “Even my enemies say that ‘Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself and then you wouldn’t have put him in,’” Trump told Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt that month. “He took the job and then he said I’m going to recuse myself. I said, ‘what kind of a man is this?’”
Congressional Republicans recently blocked efforts to protect Mueller’s investigation should a move be made to fire the former FBI director and end the Russia probe.
This article has been updated to reflect Trump’s announcement of Barr as his pick to lead the Department of Justice.