HOUSTON (FOX 26) - President Donald Trump asked for Sessions' resignation and then replaced the former Alabama senator with Sessions' chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker.
This week's panel: Jessica Colon - Republican strategist, Nyanza Moore - progressive commentator and Houston attorney, Bob Price – Associate Editor Breitbart Texas, Tony Diaz- Chicano educator and activist, Tomaro Bell – Super Neighborhood leader, Bill King - businessman, columnist and former Kemah Mayor talk about Sessions resignation and the fate of the Mueller investigation.
WASHINGTON (AP) - Matthew Whitaker's future at the helm of the Justice Department appears uncertain as President Donald Trump denies even knowing the man he's just named acting attorney general.
The Senate's top Republican is predicting a permanent replacement could be named soon for Whitaker, who's now overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible ties between Russia and Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
The comments Friday from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., came as Whitaker's past business ties and remarks on Mueller's probe and other topics drew scrutiny from Democrats and ethics groups.
"I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump told reporters at the White House before leaving on a trip to France. That contradicted Trump's remarks on Fox News last month, when he called Whitaker "a great guy" and said, "I mean, I know Matt Whitaker."
McConnell, separately, said, "I think this will be a very interim AG." And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was concerned by some of Whitaker's past comments and called for legislation that would place limits on his ability to fire Mueller. That would include specifying that only a Senate-confirmed Justice Department official, which Whitaker is not, could dismiss the special counsel.
Whitaker, a Republican Party loyalist and chief of staff to just-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was elevated Wednesday after Sessions was forced from his job by Trump.
Since Wednesday, Whitaker has faced pressure from Democrats to step aside from overseeing Mueller, based on critical comments Whitaker made about the investigation before joining the Justice Department last year.
Whitaker wrote an op-ed article saying Mueller would be straying outside his mandate if he investigated Trump family finances. Whitaker also gave a talk radio interview in which he maintained there was no evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. He also tweeted an ex-prosecutor's opinion piece that described a "Mueller lynch mob" and said it was "worth a read."
There have been reports about Whitaker's past comments questioning the power and reach of the federal judiciary, and about his ties to an invention-promotion company that was accused of misleading consumers.
The Wall Street Journal on Friday published an email revealing an FBI investigation into the company, World Patent Marketing Inc. The July 10, 2017, email was from an FBI victims' specialist to someone who, the newspaper said, was an alleged victim of the company. A Justice Department spokeswoman told the Journal that Whitaker was "not aware of any fraudulent activity."
Also Friday, The Associated Press reported that Whitaker repeatedly chided Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in public statements during 2016 while he was speaking for a group that is barred by its tax-exempt status from supporting or opposing political candidates during a campaign.
Whitaker has tried to stay out of the public debate. He sent a department-wide note after his appointment in which he said, "As we move forward, I am committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans."
Legal scholars are debating the constitutionality of his appointment. Some lawyers say it is illegal because he has not been confirmed by the Senate.
Even as Trump seems to be distancing himself from Whitaker, two Republicans close to the president said Trump had enjoyed Whitaker's TV appearances and the two had struck a bond. Those TV appearances included one on CNN in which Whitaker suggested that the Mueller probe could be starved of resources.
Trump told associates that he felt Whitaker would be "loyal" and would not have withdrawn from the Russia probe, as Sessions had done, according to the Republicans. They were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump said Friday he had not spoken with Whitaker about Mueller's investigation, which until now has been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Later in the day, Trump tweeted that he did not personally know Whitaker, a former federal prosecutor in Iowa, but several Republican leaders in that state respected him. "I feel certain he will make an outstanding Acting Attorney General!"
Rosenstein told reporters Friday that based on his experiences with Whitaker, "I think he's a superb choice for attorney general."
Of the scrutiny Whitaker is facing, Trump said, "It's a shame that no matter who I put in they go after."
"He was very, very highly thought of, and still is highly thought of, but this only comes up because anybody that works for me, they do a number on them," Trump said.
McConnell said he expects Trump to nominate a new permanent attorney general "pretty quickly." McConnell said he expects Whitaker to be "a very interim" appointee.
"The president has said repeatedly he's not going to dismiss the Mueller investigation," McConnell told reporters at Kentucky's Capitol. "He's said repeatedly it's going to be allowed to finish. That also happens to be my view."
Trump has not said whom he will nominate to permanently replace Sessions.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is said to be a candidate, along with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, among others.
Trump told reporters he has not discussed the post with Christie, who he said was "a friend of mine" and "a good man."
WASHINGTON (AP) - Jeff Sessions' departure as attorney general
Thursday, November 8, 8 p.m.
A coalition of 18 state attorneys general has sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker calling on him to recuse himself from the special counsel's Russia probe.
In the letter dated Thursday, the AGs reference Whitaker's "widely-circulated public comments criticizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election."
Whitaker replaced Jeff Sessions, who was forced out Wednesday.
The AGs say Whitaker's recusal is "necessary to maintain the public trust in the integrity of the investigation."
They say Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should "continue to supervise" the Mueller probe.
The letter was signed by the attorneys general of Massachusetts, New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia.
Thursday, November 8, 5:05 p.m.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons will try to force a vote next week on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.
Flake announced the move Thursday, a day after President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him with loyal ally Matt Whitaker. Whitaker is expected to oversee Mueller's investigation into potential coordination between Trump's 2016 Republican campaign and Russia.
Trump has called the investigation a "witch hunt."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill in April. It would give special counsels a 10-day window to seek review of a firing.
The senators will ask for consent to vote on the bill, but any senator can object.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi scheduled a call Thursday for Democrats to discuss their response.
Thursday, November 8, 1:20 p.m.
In a goodbye message to staff, Jeff Sessions says his time serving as President Donald Trump's attorney general "goes beyond anything I ever would have thought possible."
Sessions sent the message to Justice Department workers on Thursday, a day after he resigned at Trump's request.
Sessions says he was proud to run the department and to work to reduce violent crime and overdose deaths. He's also citing the department's increased prosecutions for weapons and immigration offenses.
Sessions writes that it was "an incredible honor to work with people who day after day and year after year consistently exceeded expectations."
Sessions' chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, has been named as acting attorney general.
Thursday, November 8, 10:05 a.m.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway says the exit of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is "not a constitutional crisis."
Sessions' former chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, is now acting attorney general and has authority to oversee the remainder of the Russia probe.
Conway spoke to reporters at the White House on Thursday.
Conway was asked if President Donald Trump had instructed Whitaker to limit the Russia investigation and said the "president hasn't instructed him to do anything" beyond serve as acting attorney general.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein previously oversaw the probe. Conway says Rosenstein was at the White House on Wednesday for a regularly scheduled meeting and was expected back for another such meeting on Thursday.
Thursday, November 8, 7:05 a.m.
The Kremlin has called the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election a "headache" for U.S. authorities but has declined to comment on the departure of Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the comments Thursday after Sessions handed in his resignation. Sessions' departure has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe given that the new acting attorney general has questioned the inquiry's scope.
Peskov says Sessions' departure isn't something for the Kremlin to weigh in on.
Peskov says the inquiry is "a headache for our American counterparts - it has nothing to do with us." He argues Mueller's team hasn't "managed to produce anything that can withstand serious criticism."
Mueller's team has obtained several guilty pleas and a jury conviction and has indictments pending against Russian companies.
Thursday, November 8. 12:25 a.m.
Jeff Sessions' departure as attorney general is raising questions about the fate of the special counsel's Russia probe.
President Donald Trump asked for Sessions' resignation and then replaced the former Alabama senator with Sessions' chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker.
Whitaker is a former U.S. attorney from Iowa who founded a law firm with other Republican Party activists. He has questioned the Russia probe's scope and spoken publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the investigation.
Congressional Democrats have already called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation. So far that has been the job of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed special counsel Robert Mueller.
The ongoing investigation has produced guilty pleas from four former Trump aides.
WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsel's Russia investigation.
The move Wednesday has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller's probe given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, until now Sessions' chief of staff, has questioned the inquiry's scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the investigation.
Congressional Democrats, concerned about protecting Mueller, called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation in its final but potentially explosive stages.
That duty has belonged to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and closely monitors his work.
The resignation, in a one-page letter to Trump, came one day after Republicans lost control of the House and was the first of several expected post-midterms Cabinet and White House departures. Though Sessions was an early and prominent campaign backer of Trump, his departure letter lacked effusive praise for the president and made clear the resignation came "at your request."
"Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as attorney general of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country," Sessions wrote.
The departure was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions' tenure, when he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because of his campaign advocacy and following the revelation that he had met twice in 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Trump blamed the recusal for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation two months later and began examining whether Trump's hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct the probe.
The investigation has produced 32 criminal charges and guilty pleas from four former Trump aides. But the work is not done, and critical decisions await that could shape the remainder of Trump's presidency.
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday called Mueller's investigation a "headache" for U.S. authorities but said it "has nothing to do with us," and he declined to comment on Sessions' departure.
Mueller's grand jury has heard testimony for months about Trump confidant Roger Stone and what advance knowledge he may have had about Russian hacking of Democratic emails. Mueller's team also has been pressing for an interview with Trump. And the department is expected to receive a confidential report of Mueller's findings, though it's unclear how much will be public.
Separately, Justice Department prosecutors in New York secured a guilty plea from Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who said the president directed him to arrange hush money payments before the 2016 election to two women who said they had sex with Trump.
Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until after the midterms, but he told confidants in recent weeks that he wanted Sessions out as soon as possible after the elections, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.
The president deflected questions about Sessions' expected departure at a White House news conference Wednesday. He did not mention that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Sessions beforehand to ask for his resignation. The undated letter was then sent to the White House.
The Justice Department did not directly answer whether Whitaker would assume control of Mueller's investigation, with spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores saying he would be "in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice."
Rosenstein remains at the department and could still be involved in oversight. He has previously said that he saw no basis for firing Mueller. Trump said Wednesday that he did not plan to stop the investigation.
Without Sessions' campaign or Russia entanglements, there's no legal reason Whitaker couldn't immediately oversee the probe. And since Sessions technically resigned instead of forcing the White House to fire him, he opened the door under federal law to allowing the president to choose his successor instead of simply elevating Rosenstein, said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.
"Sessions did not do the thing he could have done to better protect Rosenstein, and through Rosenstein, the Mueller investigation," Vladeck said.
That left Whitaker in charge, at least for now, though Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said he should recuse himself because of his comments on the probe. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants "answers immediately" and "we will hold people accountable."
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa who twice ran unsuccessfully for statewide office and founded a law firm with other Republican Party activists, once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller's probe.
In that scenario, Mueller's budget could be reduced "so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt," Whitaker said during an interview with CNN in July 2017 before he joined the Justice Department.
In a CNN op-ed last year, Whitaker wrote, "Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing."
Trump's relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact his crime-fighting agenda and priorities, particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies, largely mirrored the president's.
He found satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era policies that conservatives say flouted the will of Congress, encouraging prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could and promoting more aggressive enforcement of federal marijuana law.
He also announced media leak crackdowns and tougher policies against opioids, and his Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration policy that resulted in migrant parents being separated from their children at the border.
But the relationship was irreparably damaged in March 2017 when Sessions, acknowledging previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and citing his work as a campaign aide, recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Trump repeatedly lamented that he would have never selected Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself. The recusal left the investigation in the hands of Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller two months later after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey.
In piercing attacks, Trump called Sessions weak and beleaguered, complained that he wasn't more aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and called it "disgraceful" that Sessions wasn't more serious in scrutinizing the origins of the Russia investigation for possible law enforcement bias - even though the attorney general did ask the Justice Department's inspector general to examine those claims.
The broadsides escalated in recent months, with Trump telling an interviewer that Sessions "never had control" of the Justice Department.
Sessions endured most of the name-calling in silence, though he did issue two public statements defending the department, including one in which he said he would serve "with integrity and honor" for as long as he was in the job.
Sessions, who likely suspected his ouster was imminent, was spotted by reporters giving some of his grandchildren a tour of the White House over the weekend. He did not respond when asked why he was there.