President Trump, in his latest effort to thwart the Russian election-meddling investigation, has fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Critics warn that the action could lead to a constitutional crisis.
The president became disenchanted with Sessions last year, when the attorney general recused himself from overseeing the investigation because of his involvement in the Trump campaign. The president suggested that he had chosen Sessions to head the Justice Department because he thought the former Alabama Republican senator would end the probe.
Instead, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took over supervision of the investigation and appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel. The inquiry has since expanded to include examinations of alleged Trump campaign collusion with the Russians, and whether the president has obstructed justice.
Mueller, who has already filed criminal charges against several former Trump associates, reportedly will soon release his full findings. Democrats, after capturing control of the House of Representatives the day before Sessions' firing, vowed to use the evidence in committee hearings they plan to hold next year.
Rather than allowing Rosenstein to become the nation's highest-ranking law-enforcement official, Trump appointed Sessions' chief of staff to the position. The new acting attorney general, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, has publicly opposed the Russian investigation. His past comments are prompting concerns that he will fire Mueller.
In a 2017 op-ed for CNN, Whitaker argued that the finances of the Trump family and businesses should not be part of the special counsel's probe. He wrote that expanding the scope of the investigation in such a way would prove the president's claim that Mueller is engaged in a “witch hunt.”
Democrats wasted no time in demanding that Whitaker recuse himself from the inquiry. They noted that in addition to having revealed his bias regarding the investigation, Whitaker has a conflict of interest because he was the campaign chairman for a former Trump adviser who ran for state treasurer in Iowa in 2014.
The president made it clear that his objective in sacking Sessions was to protect himself from the Russian scandal, which could add credence to the obstruction-of-justice charge. Trump's only stated rationale for the firing was the attorney general's decision to recuse himself. Rosenstein may be the next official to lose his job, since he has repeatedly ignored Trump's pleas to end the investigation. Whitaker would then take over supervision of Mueller's legal team, which he could disband.
The threat of a Justice Department purge in the midst of a probe targeting the president elicited howls of protest from Democrats. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who is expected to chair the House Judiciary Committee when the new Congress is seated two months from now, declared:
“The American people understand that no person is above the law and have demanded accountability from their government. The firing of Jeff Sessions will be investigated and people will be held accountable. This must begin immediately, and if not, then a Democratic Congress will make this a priority in January. … This is a constitutionally perilous moment for our country and the president.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the likely new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned that impeding the Russian probe “would cause a constitutional crisis and undermine the rule of law.” Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts agreed, tweeting: “(Trump's) firing of Jeff Sessions brings us one step closer to a constitutional crisis. Congress must act to ensure that Mueller can do his job without interference.”
Trump's attempt to get rid of those investigating him evoked memories of former President Richard Nixon and the Watergate affair. In October 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire a special investigator who was looking into the scandal. Richardson, as well as his deputy, refused to do so.
Nixon finally got Solicitor General Robert Bork to dismiss the prosecutor. The incident, which became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” built momentum for Nixon's impeachment. He avoided that fate by becoming the first president to resign from the office.
A number of groups began protesting the firing of Sessions within hours of Trump's announcement. Thousands of people took part in demonstrations across the country the following day.
One of the organizers of the rallies, Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, issued a public statement proclaiming: “Trump just put someone who has openly trashed ... Mueller's Russia investigation in charge of it. Trump thought that by waiting until after the polls closed on Election Day, our voices would be silent. He was wrong.”
Weissman, as well as MoveOn.org Executive Director Anna Galland and other activists, accused the president of having “crossed a red line.” Among the organizations sponsoring protests were Indivisible, March for Truth and Greenpeace. It was not the first time that such groups have lashed out at Trump.
“Two years ago, we called on people to RESIST, and we saw people from all walks of life resisting policies and decisions that hurt ordinary people,” Annie Leonard, Greenpeace's U.S. director, wrote. “Now, we must build on that resistance and bring double the energy and double the hope to rebuild a country based on shared values of justice and equality. That's why we're encouraging people to join the Trump Is Not Above the Law network.”