Following the midterm elections, President Donald Trump wasted no time ousting Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday and appointing Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, to serve as interim attorney general.
Trump’s switching out of the U.S. government’s top lawyer comes as the Justice Department’s Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election and any possible connections with Trump’s campaign.
Prior to the start of Mueller’s investigation in May 2017, then-Attorney General Sessions recused himself from any investigations into Russian election meddling because of his previous campaigning for Trump, a decision the president publicly criticized on multiple occasions.
Whitaker will now oversee the Russia investigation, a duty previously assumed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special prosecutor.
Some Democrats have called Whitaker biased based on his prior criticism of Mueller’s investigation.
Multiple questions arise from Sessions’ departure and Whitaker’s appointment, including whom Trump will eventually nominate to the permanent attorney general spot – subject to Senate approval – and whether Whitaker will recuse himself from the investigation, an unlikely prospect according to sources close to Whitaker who spoke to the Washington Post.
Attorney Joseph Morris, who served as an assistant attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, doesn’t think Whitaker will have any major influence on Mueller’s ongoing investigation – save for timing, perhaps.
“It’s possible that the acting attorney general may encourage the special counsel to speed it up and get it concluded well before we get seriously into the 2020 election cycle,” Morris said. “But I don’t think there’s going to be any substantive impact on the investigation at all.”
Attorney and former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, who ran as a Democrat in the 2018 Democratic primary for Illinois attorney general, said Whitaker’s appointment poses a conflict of interest.
“It is troubling that a man who has prejudged the outcome of an investigation is now overseeing it,” Mariotti said. “We deserve an attorney general who has no appearance of an agenda that involves assisting or protecting the president.”
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