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How will Jeff Sessions’ ouster affect the Mueller probe?

President Trump announced Wednesday afternoon in a tweet that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was out. His departure will again focus an intense spotlight on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. William Brangham reports, than Judy Woodruff gets reaction from White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and talks with Lisa Desjardins, former Justice Department official John Carlin and Carrie Johnson of NPR.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's apparently been coming for months, and, today, it happened.

    We learned the fate of the U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

    William Brangham begins our coverage.

  • William Brangham:

    When he was asked about the status of his attorney general this afternoon, the president punted:

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would rather answer that at a little bit different time.

  • William Brangham:

    That different time, two hours later. In a tweet, he announced his attorney general was out.

    In an undated letter also released today, Jeff Sessions made it clear who forced today's move, writing: "Dear Mr. President, at your request, I am submitting my resignation."

    Of his time at the Justice Department, Sessions wrote — quote — "We have operated with integrity and have lawfully and aggressively advanced the policy agenda of this administration."

    Sessions' departure will again focus an intense spotlight on special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation into how Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election and whether any members of the Trump campaign conspired in that effort.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    I have recused myself.

  • William Brangham:

    As attorney general last year, Sessions infuriated the president by recusing himself from direct oversight of any investigations relating to the 2016 campaign. This was two months before Mueller was even appointed.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    No improper discussions with Russians at any time.

  • William Brangham:

    Sessions did so because of lingering questions over whether he'd been truthful about his own meetings with Russian officials during the campaign. The president never seemed to forgive Sessions for his recusal, and repeatedly and publicly criticized him for it.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He took the job and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this? I am disappointed in the attorney general. He shouldn't have recused himself almost immediately after he took office.

    He should have certainly let us know if he was going to recuse himself, and we would have used a — put a different attorney general in. I'm disappointed in the attorney general for many reasons. And you understand that.

  • William Brangham:

    Sessions' recusal put the number two at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, in charge of Mueller's probe, and in the 18 months he's overseen it, he's been a staunch defender of Mueller's independence.

    But now that oversight changes hands. The president announced Matthew Whitaker, formerly Sessions' chief of staff, would immediately become acting attorney general until a replacement is nominated. Whitaker has been publicly critical of Mueller's work, writing in this op-ed for CNN that the special counsel was going too far — quote — "Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing."

    On Capitol Hill today, the reaction from Democrats was swift.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    I have just heard the news. But I would say this: Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount. It would create a constitutional crisis if this were a prelude to ending or greatly limiting the Mueller investigation.

  • William Brangham:

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted today that Whitaker must step aside, writing — quote — "Given his record of threats to undermine and weaken the Russia investigation, Matthew Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller's investigation."

    The attorney general's departure is a striking fall. Back during the campaign, then Senator Sessions was one of then candidate Trump's earliest and strongest supporters.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    Make America great again.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    Sessions' support throughout the campaign was crucial in convincing hesitant Republicans about backing Donald Trump, and after the election, he was one of the first people named to the Cabinet.

    But now, as he left the Justice Department tonight for the last time and with a farewell from his replacement, many are concerned Sessions' firing could trigger in much deeper crisis.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We get comments now from one of President Trump's longest serving advisers, Kellyanne Conway.

    She and I spoke just a short time ago. And I began by asking why the president asked Mr. Sessions to step down.

  • Kellyanne Conway:

    The president's made very clear for a very long time his disappointment in the initial recusal from all things related to the 2016 election and campaign, and it's been a fraught relationship for quite a while.

    But as the president said in his tweet just today, Judy, he thanks the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for his service and wishes him well. In his resignation letter, the attorney general said that he is particularly lauding of the brave men and women in our law enforcement.

    And, of course, the attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the nation. That means he's been responsible for the U.S. attorney's offices and a lot of the good that has happened on the president and the attorney general's watch, including cracking down on these transnational criminals, certainly breaking the back of the opioid crisis, really putting it to the MS-13 gangs.

    And I think some of the statistics bear out these policies have been successful. So we wish the attorney general very well. And I think what's most remarkable is that the president has called for a continuum in the attorney general's office by designating the chief of staff to be the acting attorney general and keeping in place the deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I want to ask you about, because our understanding the person the president named to be acting, Matthew Whitaker, is someone who will be overseeing the Mueller investigation, the special counsel's investigation.

    Mr. Whitaker is someone who has called for an end to that investigation. So does this mean the president expect Mrs. Whitaker to shut the investigation down or to limit it?

  • Kellyanne Conway:

    No, that is not the reason that the president has asked Matt Whitaker to step in as acting attorney general and with the eye toward a permanent replacement to be nominated soon, as the president said today, Judy.

    We have been told by many people, I guess, in public reports that perhaps the Mueller investigation is winding down. We're not sure. You know, because PBS has reported as well, that there have been different negotiations between the president's outside counsel and Mr. Mueller and his team.

    But as far as the investigation goes, with it winding down, and the president has said, let's comply, and hopefully we will be able to get through it quickly. The president in his stem-winder of a press conference just today, Judy, made reference to the Mueller investigation, said there is no Russia collusion, that we have spent millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer money.

    We will wait for the report, but if this was about Russia collusion from the beginning, as the president has said, there is no collusion. He's called this a witch-hunt and hoax, and we will see what the report says.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, just quickly, he doesn't — you don't expect there to be a change in any way? Mr. Whitaker won't be in any way dealing with the Russia investigation?

  • Kellyanne Conway:

    No, no, I'm not aware of what you asked previously, which is that, in making this move, the president is trying to shut down the investigation.

    I know the media have also asked for probably the best of the part of the year, is he trying to fire Bob Mueller, is he trying to fire Rosenstein, who is overseeing Bob Mueller? None of that has been true.

    And, in fact, as the president made clear today in his press conference, he could. He has the right to end the investigation. He's not done that. In fact, he's complied — he and I think over 33 or so witnesses have testified and complied or produced papers. Over one million pieces of paper have been produced in pursuit.

    So the president and his team have been very compliant with the investigation. He's not trying to shut it down or compromise it whatsoever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I also asked Kellyanne Conway about, of course, the election results, and we will have that later in the program.

    But starting with the news of Attorney General Sessions' departure, I'm joined by John Carlin. He was the chief of staff under former FBI Director Robert Mueller and the Justice Department's top national security official under former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Carrie Johnson covers the Department of Justice for NPR. And our own Capitol Hill correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    So let me begin with you, Carrie Johnson, since you do cover that department.

    What's the reaction there to the departure, the forced departure of the attorney general? How was he seen there?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Judy, this was a long time coming.

    There's a grim joke on the DOJ beat among the reporters that we have updated Jeff Sessions' political obituary three or four times this year. Today, it finally became necessary.

    That said, there's some dismay inside Justice among the career lawyers and the political appointees at the way his departure was handled today. You saw several dozen people, senior people at the Justice Department, as well as line attorneys, gather outside in that DOJ courtyard to send off Jeff Sessions as he left the building for the last time this evening.

    And there is some sense that his ouster is unfair, in a way, because anybody who was affiliated with the Trump campaign would have had to recuse from this Russia probe, and it was no secret that Sessions was the president's first and best ally in Congress in the course of the campaign.

    So, people inside DOJ could never understand the source of President Trump's frustration over that recusal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, following up, Carrie Johnson, is this seen to affect the work of the Department of Justice?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Morale has already been quite low, Judy, in part because the president has gone out of his way to attack some people inside the Justice Department by name, as well as some senior FBI officials, remember, starting last year, with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey, continuing this year with the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe and agent Peter Strzok.

    There has been a lot of controversy and turmoil surrounding the DOJ and the FBI. These folks inside the Justice Department are trying to do their jobs day to day. That can be difficult with rights constant assault and barrage of attacks from the president on his allies on Twitter and elsewhere.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To John Carlin now.

    John, we heard Kellyanne Conway say that she doesn't expect that what the president is asking Matthew Whitaker, who will be acting attorney general now, to end or in any way limit the Mueller investigation.

    But knowing the department as you do, how do you think this affects the chain of command, the relationships inside the Department of Justice, that could affect the oversight of that investigation?

  •  John Carlin:

    Well, look, there's no one who does his mission and keeps his head down and follows the facts like Bob Mueller.

    That's been his career from when he was a Marine to when he was a line prosecutor, to when he was director of the FBI. So I think, even with this news, that team is going to continue to follow the facts. And look what they have uncovered so far. I mean, there have been over 30 individuals charged. You have had a former campaign manager of a major campaign convicted by a jury of his peers of serious felony offenses for taking money secretly in part from Russian interests.

    You have had a Russian campaign to interfere in our elections through social media, through hacking into voter databases, and through hacking and targeting one political party, laid out in detail, so that we can protect ourselves. So it's been an important investigation that's fed other investigations that now continue to take place in the National Security Division and at U.S. attorney's offices.

    And it's important for the integrity of our department and our country to let it play out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, somebody who covers the Hill, talks to both parties, Democrats have been following this investigation very closely. Republicans are saying, let's get it over with, as the president has. What are we hearing today from the Congress about this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Amazing how much reaction I got within just the two hours of this story breaking, especially by an exhausted group of senators and staffers after the midterm election.

    And that's the first thing you heard was from Democrats, like Chuck Schumer. They are questioning the timing of this announcement. To be honest, Judy, this is not a surprise for anyone in Congress. In fact, let's go back to August.

    At that time, I had multiple sources confirming — and this was reported at the time — that Lindsey Graham had a phone conversation with President Trump, stressing to him, do not fire Jeff Sessions now. That was in August. He said, wait until after the election.

    So that word got out. People expected this after the election. But almost no one expected it the day after the election.

    What we're hearing from Democrats, they are concerned about Mark (sic) Whitaker. They want him to recuse himself, most of them. But Dianne Feinstein is calling for him to make a public appearance and to say that he will not interfere.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Carrie Johnson, back to you.

    Given the reaction all around to this, what do we know right now about Matthew Whitaker?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    You know, he was a U.S. attorney in the George W. Bush administration in Iowa. He has a close working relationship with Senator Chuck Grassley, who is currently the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

    And Whitaker told me last year at the Justice Department Christmas party that he was making it a personal mission to improve relations between the senior officials at Justice and the White House. He appears to have succeed in great measure.

    And the evidence of that is that he was promoted without being Senate-confirmed to be the acting attorney general today. The question inside Justice for some people and on Capitol Hill for Democrats is whether he's too close to the White House as this investigation by the special counsel edges closer to the Trump campaign, and as other investigations in U.S. attorney's offices may be looking into the Trump Organization itself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Carlin, then what does this all say about the independence of the Justice Department, the independence of the attorney general from the White House?

  •  John Carlin:

    And I think that's what's critical.

    There have been close relationships between the attorneys general and the White House before, but, at the end of the day, we need to have confidence that the integrity of our — particularly our criminal investigations, who's targeted, what type of evidence is collected, how it's collected is not directed for political purposes.

    That is true with the Mueller investigation, and I think in terms of the prior comments of Mr. Whitaker, they need to be examined, and then there's a process within the Justice Department, with consultation with the ethics officials, to see whether or not it requires recusals.

    But it's also true for the conduct of public corruption and other types of investigations. I believe, just today, the president indicated that he might want the Democrats in Congress to be investigated, it sounded like for criminal purposes, by the Justice Department.

    That's the type of statement by the commander in chief that makes it all the more important that the officials at Justice Department are clearly not going by direction from the White House, but instead are following the facts and doing the law.

    And there are thousands and thousands of career officials, agents, and prosecutors who swore an oath to the Constitution, and I trust and have faith that they're going to — they're going to do their allegiance to that oath.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it raises so many questions.

    And, finally, Lisa Desjardins, in terms of confirming a permanent replacement, I noticed that Senator Lamar Alexander put out a statement saying, "I have a lot of respect for Jeff Sessions."

    He went on to say — he said, "The one thing this does make certain is that the Mueller investigation will continue to its end, as it should, because no new attorney general can be confirmed who will stop that investigation."

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That is an important statement, but you have to also remember that the Trump administration has been known for keeping acting officials in those positions for longer-than-usual amounts of time.

    Under law, Mark — Matt Whitaker can stay in that position for six months or more, and the Trump administration has extended that, really without suffering any penalties. So he's a person to watch right now. Obviously, senators want the Mueller investigation to not be infringed upon, but that's what we have to watch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many questions tonight. I want to thank all three of you, Lisa Desjardins, John Carlin, and Carrie Johnson. Thank you so much.

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