On Wednesday 8 November, the morning after the 2018 mid-term elections, Donald Trump requested the resignation of the US Attorney General (AG), Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, known popularly as Jeff Sessions. Sessions acquiesced and is now tossed onto the heap of officials discarded by this Trump administration. Estimable company to hold.
The timing of Sessions’s firing is suspect at best, obstructive at worst.
In 2016, Jeff Sessions recused himself from all investigations relating to Russia and the 2016 election after it emerged that he met with Sergey Kislyak, the Ambassador of Russia to the US until 2017, in the run up to the election, having previously denied any meeting with Russians or Russian officials. This left his deputy Rod Rosenstein in charge of the Mueller investigation. Sessions’s recusal infuriated Donald Trump, leading to statements such as:
“I put in an attorney general who never took control of the Justice Department. He took the job and then he said: ‘I’m going to recuse myself.’ … I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’”
Why would Trump choose to fire an individual such as Sessions one day after the mid-term election? A realist, not a cynic, would state that this is a political ploy from the Trump administration to instate a pro-Trump, anti-Mueller Attorney General.
As the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, Trump is now at risk of penetrating and real investigation into his alleged links to Russia. Democrats now chair key House committees, including the House Intelligence Committee, which is tasked with investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Adam Schiff, the likely new Democratic Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, now has the ability to subpoena documents and lead a real investigation, unlike the dog-and-pony show orchestrated by Devin Nunes, the Republican former chairman of said committee.
Firing Jeff Sessions can best be read as a dramatic change in Trump’s aggressiveness regarding investigations into his alleged collusion with Russia. If he were to instate a non-recused ally in the AG post, curtailing Mueller’s investigation or ending the investigation become political possibilities. Furthermore, given that Republicans control the Senate with a greater margin than before, the risk of Trump impeachment and removal – the House impeaches, and the Senate removes at trial – is greatly diminished. Trump ending the Russia investigation with political cover and two years to change the opinion polls is a very realistic possibility.
Matthew Whitaker, the new Acting Attorney General and former Chief of Staff of Jeff Sessions, is such an ally. In an interview on CNN in July 2017, Whitaker proposed the following:
‘So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that the investigation grinds almost to a halt.’
‘I think what ultimately the president is going to start doing is putting pressure on Rod J. Rosenstein, who is in charge of this investigation, is acting attorney general, and really try to get Rod to maybe even cut the budget of Bob Mueller and do something a little more stage crafty than the blunt instrument of firing the attorney general and trying to replace him.’
Per Pete Williams at NBC, the new Acting AG can only fire the Special Counsel for cause, but as highlighted by Whitaker’s comments, firing Mueller is less likely than starving him of resources.
In the event that Robert Mueller and his investigation are shut-down, immediate protests have been planned in the US, organised by MoveOn. 400,000 people in over 900 US cities are ready to march.
Yesterday, MoveOn triggered those protests, which are due to go live today at 5 pm local US time (US Eastern Time is 5 hours behind the UK and Pacific Time is 8 hours behind).
What impact might these protests have? Certainly, less impact than might have been had before the mid-terms. The next time the US population goes to the ballot box is for the 2020 election. Trump is also unlikely to lose support among his base – it’s loyal to the hilt and feeds on a diet of conspiracy theories and far-right media. As Trump himself stated in 2016, ‘I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’ Bravado perhaps but it looks increasingly likely that a significant proportion of the US population would indeed still vote for him, even if the worst allegations bear out to be true.
The same faith in Trump is found within the ranks of the Republican Senators. In 2017, Lindsey Graham stated that there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions. This was then walked back by Graham in August this year, stating that Trump is “entitled to an attorney general he has faith in.”
Key Republican senators have backed the Mueller investigation, with Susan Collins – who played a key role in Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation – stating in a tweet:
It is imperative that the Administration not impede the Mueller investigation. I’m concerned Rod Rosenstein will no longer be overseeing the probe. Special Counsel Mueller must be allowed to complete his work without interference—regardless of who is AG.
— Sen. Susan Collins (@SenatorCollins) November 7, 2018
It remains to be seen, however, whether Democrats will seek to impeach in the House. Only a simple majority is required to then move impeachment proceedings to the Senate, where a full trial is held and presided over by the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. If Democrats were to seek impeachment too swiftly, they risk losing the opportunity later, as there simply wouldn’t be the political capital to obtain a two-thirds super majority to convict.
America’s system of Checks and Balances is about to meet the mother of all stress tests and the international community looks on with bated breath, awaiting to see whether the US capitulates to dictatorship or resists the turn to the dark (orange?) side.