President Trump’s decision to fire former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has already inspired multiple lawsuits challenging the legality of the move based on Whitaker’s failure to have been previously confirmed by the Senate as constitutionally required.
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Now over 400 Justice Department alumni, including former department officials and attorneys who have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have issued a statement expressing their concern over Whitaker’s appointment, according to a report by BuzzFeed News.
The statement was organized by The Protect Democracy Project, a non-partisan, non-profit government watchdog group dedicated to protecting the nation from authoritarianism.
Citing the respect they have for the oaths of office that they took and their time executing the mission of the Justice Department, the signatories say that they are “disturbed” by the appointment.
“Because of the profound responsibilities the position entails and the independence it requires, it can only be filled by someone who has been subjected to the strictest scrutiny under the process required by the Constitution,” the statement reads.
“Mr. Whitaker has not been confirmed by the Senate, his qualifications to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer have not been publicly reviewed, and he has not been fully vetted for any potential conflicts of interest,” it continues.
The Trump administration has continued to claim that Whitaker’s appointment is legitimate, and the Justice Department is defending that position in its responses to the lawsuits filed both by Democratic Senators and by Maryland’s Attorney General Brian Frosh.
The hundreds of former Justice Department employees who disagree with the department’s current stance have recommended a specific remedy for what they see as the President’s usurpation of his constitutional requirements.
“We therefore call on the President to follow the Constitutional process by nominating an Attorney General, and replacing Mr. Whitaker as Acting Attorney General with the Senate-confirmed official who is next in the line of succession by operation of federal law. We likewise call on the Senate to insist that its Constitutional prerogative to provide advice and consent be respected.”
The statement, which The Protect Democracy Project published in full on Medium.com, includes a link for additional former DOJ employees to join the petition and add their signatures to the document.
Several of the people endorsing the statement have explained their reasons for supporting the call for Whitaker to be replaced immediately. Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor, cited the acting AG’s public criticism of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as one reason she joined her colleagues in signing the statement.
“I think there are a number of reasons not to support Whitaker and a number of reasons to think he should at least recuse himself,” Wine-Banks said.
Roy Austin, a former senior Civil Rights Division official in the Justice Department under the Obama administration, said his motivation in signing the document was to inform the public of the seriousness of Trump’s violation and the importance that the rule of law holds in the Justice Department alumni’s hearts and minds.
“I don’t expect much from this administration but I think the public should know that those of us who served at the Department of Justice care deeply about the institution even though we’re no longer there, and I hope the public and Congress demand that the right thing be done,” said Austin, now an attorney in private practice in Washington, DC.
Meanwhile, neither the Trump administration nor the Justice Department has commented on the former officials’ demands, and Trump has yet to indicate who he may nominate to the serve as Sessions’ “permanent” replacement.
With the supervision of the Special Counsel’s inquiry under the jurisdiction of whoever is in charge of the Justice Department, Whitaker’s removal is not a hypothetical problem. but an issue that needs to be fixed as soon as possible, particularly as Mueller begins to “tie up the loose ends” of the investigation.
Let’s hope that the informed opinions of the legacy officials from the DOJ will help sway opinion and result in an Attorney General untainted by accusations of bias against the Mueller probe being confirmed by the Senate.
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Original reporting by Zoe Tillman at BuzzFeed News.