Donald Trump has forced out Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, in his first cabinet clean-out following the midterm elections, and someone whose departure had been anticipated ever since he ruled himself out from overseeing the Russia probe.
In what was likely to be the first of several shake-ups following Tuesday’s elections, which saw Republicans lose control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats, Mr Sessions said he had been asked to resign and had done so.
“Dear Mr President, at your request I am submitting my resignation,” Mr Sessions said in his letter
The firing of Mr Sessions, and his replacement with his own chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who will be acting attorney general, will immediately trigger fears the president is preparing to terminate the inquiry being carried out by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Mr Mueller was appointed to lead an investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, after the president fired then FBI Director James Comey.
Under normal circumstances, Mr Sessions would have overseen the probe. But having already triggered controversy over his failure to acknowledge a meeting he had held with Russian officials during the transition process, Mr Sessions asked that his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, take on the responsibility.
While Mr Sessions was among the very first members of the Senate to support Mr Trump’s bid for the White House, and shared similar views on immigration and other issues, the president never forgave the man from Alabama for his decision.
He frequently took to social media to criticise both him and the Department of Justice, leading to constant speculation that either Mr Sessions or Mr Rosenstein, or both, were to be fired. Many believed such a move would presage a decision to close down Mr Mueller’s probe.
On Wednesday, newly emboldened Democrats warned the president not to take such a step. Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat in the Senate, said the president would trigger a “constitutional crisis” if he tried to impede the independent probe.
Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, said Mr Sessions’ sacking appeared to be a “blatant attempt” by Mr Trump to scupper the former FBI director’s work, while Susan Collins, a Republican senator, warned the president in a tweet that “it is imperative that the administration not impede the Mueller investigation”.
At a press conference on Wednesday morning, a testy and ill-tempered Mr Trump was asked about a possible cabinet shake-up. He refused to provide specifics but said it was normal for administrations to make such changes.
He also said he was “very happy” with the majority of the people working for him.
“We are pleased to announce that Matthew Whitaker, chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new acting attorney general of the United States. He will serve our country well,” Mr Trump tweeted.
“We thank attorney general Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”
It it not clear just how long Mr Trump has been planning to fire Mr Sessions. The outed attorney general’s resignation letter was not dated.
Mr Sessions departure comes at a critical time in the probe into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. It has been reported that Mr Mueller was likely to send at least part of his report to Mr Rosenstein once the the midterms were over. Whether the findings are to be made public remains unclear.
Meanwhile, the loss of the House has provided an opportunity for Democrats to quiz and question administration officials, to demand records and make life difficult for the president.
Mr Trump said he was willing to cooperate with Democrats on Capitol Hill, but not if they opted to seek to investigate him.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better,” Mr Trump said of the possibility of Democratic investigations. “All you’re going to do is end up in back and forth and back and forth, and two years is going to go up and we won’t have done a thing.”