President Donald Trump is in the final stages of formulating a strategy to finally rid himself of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Vanity Fair reported Wednesday. The plan calls for current Director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt to replace Sessions as the head of the Department of Justice.
Such a maneuver would, conveniently, pave the way for the sacking of special counsel Robert Mueller, who Sessions has been unable to fire because of conflicts of interest related to Mueller’s investigation that have kept him on the sidelines. More on that below.
This latest round of cabinet shuffling comes at precarious time for our government. The steady trickle of departures from across the administration – from critical White House staff to congressionally approved members of the cabinet – stretches back to the earliest days of the Trump presidency. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick as National Security Advisor, was forced to resign in disgrace after just 24 days in the post.
But that trickle has turned into a torrent in recent weeks, as no fewer than five figures close to President Trump have either quit or been fired in just the last 14 days alone, of whom Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is just the most notable.
There’s one member of his administration who the president has been eying for replacement for over a year, but who’s managed to elude him this entire time, and that’s AG Jeff Sessions.
Ever since Sessions recused himself from the Department of Justice’s investigation into Russia’s cyber and misinformation attack during the 2016 presidential election – and whether or not the Trump campaign colluded and coordinated with them – the president has wanted to fire him.
Sessions was forced to step aside in early March of 2017 after reporting revealed that he lied under oath during his confirmation hearings and on governments forms about past encounters with senior Russian officials, some of them known spies. Despite the prudence and necessity of his recusal, the president has made it clear on multiple occasions how disappointed he was with the move.
“Sessions should have never recused himself,” Trump told the New York Times in July of 2017, “and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.”
Sessions’ recusal placed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of all DOJ related investigations into Russia, the most significant of which was, at the time, led by then-FBI Director James Comey.
But then Trump abruptly fired Comey in early May, and a week later admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt that he did so specifically because of the FBI’s investigation into him and his campaign’s links to Russia’s meddling operation, contradicting explanations given by members of his administration.
Rosenstein had no choice but to ask Robert Mueller to take the DOJ’s investigation over and run it independently. The move was hailed by even the most loyal of Trump associates at the time, but the honeymoon didn’t last long.
Since his appointment, Mueller’s team has secured guilty pleas or indictments from multiple Trump campaign officials, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and the aforementioned Michael Flynn. And without an attorney general legally capable of steering, squashing, or otherwise sabotaging Mueller’s investigation from the inside, the noose around the president has continued to tighten with every interview of a campaign or administration official that the special counsel conducts.
Trump traces the root of all of this to Sessions’ recusal. Unlike the president, who views everything though a lens of self interest and political survival, Sessions knows the law. As recently as Saturday, he showed no regret for his recusal from the Trump-Russia investigation because, he says, it’s what the law demanded of him.
“I think that’s what I had to do,” he told a gathering of the Federalist Society, referencing a “pretty reasonable” DOJ rule barring him or anyone in the department from participating in a probe into a campaign of which they were a member.
DOJ regulation 28 CFR 45.2 states that “no DOJ employee may participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution, or who would be directly affected by the outcome.”
The only way to kill Robert Mueller’s investigation for good is to replace his current attorney general with someone who has no conflicts of interest related to the Trump-Russia investigation.
He’s tried to do that before, but he’s either been talked out of it by senior administration officials and his legal advisors, or pressured out of it by Republicans in Congress, for whom the political consequences of sacking Mueller would be most acute with midterm elections just around the corner.
Trump tried to spin the flurry of firings and resignations in recent days as all part of some well-orchestrated stratagem to finally rid himself of the dead weight that’s supposedly been holding him back all these months.
“I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want,” he told reporters Tuesday after firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
If that really is his plan, then Jeff Sessions – and Robert Mueller – better watch their backs. Of course, it’s Trump who will truly suffer the consequences in the long run.