The walls are closing in on US President Donald Trump after the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives — but the panicked President has been quick to act.
Yesterday, he fired Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who he has long criticised for not protecting him from the Russia probe.
With the Democrats now holding the majority in the House of Representatives, Trump appears to be worried about what could emerge.
He has long raged against Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign team and Russia in 2016.
The President is particularly worried the “witch hunt” — which has already led to criminal charges against several of his associates — could extend to scrutiny of his finances.
WHY HAS SESSIONS GONE?
The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had protected Trump from a more expansive investigation into his campaign. But new chair Adam Schiff is likely to want more action and to ensure Mueller can complete his investigation into Russian election interference unimpeded.
Trump has spent the past year attacking “weak” Sessions for removing himself from the probe, after Democrats accused the Attorney-General of failing to disclose his contacts with the Russian ambassador as a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign.
The President blamed Sessions for failing to protect him from the investigation.
“What kind of man is this?” Trump fumed on Fox News in August, saying the Attorney-General “never took control of the Justice Department”.
Sessions argued the department would “not be improperly influenced by political considerations”.
If Sessions had overseen the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference, he would have faced accusations of a conflict of interest. But Trump did not see it that way.
“If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else,” he told The New York Times.
“How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.'”
Now, Trump has installed Sessions’ former chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting Attorney-General until he nominates a permanent replacement.
Whitaker has been critical of Mueller’s investigation, and could now take over oversight of the probe from Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein.
Many fear this could enable Trump to effectively kill off the investigation.
Sessions submitted his resignation yesterday, in a letter delivered to the White House. The former senator and early Trump supporter made it clear it was not his decision.
“Dear President, at your request I am submitting my resignation,” he wrote. “I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country. I have done so to the best of my ability.”
Former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said Whitaker was the “worst possible choice” for “anyone who wants to protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation.”
He said the Acting Attorney-General was “one of the few people at the Justice Department who’s weighed in on the record criticising the Mueller investigation,” adding, “I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
Former judge Andrew Napolitano told Fox News the Democrats wanted to run “shadow investigations” into Trump, exposing information Mueller has so far kept from the public.
Napolitano questioned Trump’s motivation for ditching Sessions.
“The President can fire an Attorney-General for almost any reason, but not for an improper purpose,” he said. “He cannot fire him if the purpose of the firing is to shake up the leadership of the Justice Department in order to interfere with a criminal investigation.”
Judge Napolitano said the situation was “beginning to look more and more nefarious”.
WHAT’S TRUMP SO WORRIED ABOUT?
Trump is particularly concerned with limiting the inquiry’s scope, something Sessions would not do.
In July last year, the President told The New York Times that any investigation into his finances by Mueller would be crossing a “red line”.
Journalist Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump In The White House recounts how Trump reacted when he learnt that Rosenstein had appointed Mueller.
“Trump’s mood deteriorated overnight and the next day, May 18, was the worst,” Woodward writes. “The President erupted into uncontrollable anger, visibly agitated to a degree that no one in his inner circle had witnessed before. It was a harrowing experience.”
The President stormed through the White House, the journalist continues.
“I didn’t hire him for the FBI,” Trump said, according to West Wing staff. “Of course he’s got an axe to grind with me.
“Everybody’s trying to get me. It’s unfair. Now everybody’s saying I’m going to be impeached.”
He asked an aide what powers a special counsel had, according to Woodward, and was told Mueller would have “virtually unlimited” scope.
“Now I have this person, who has no accountability, who can look into anything, however unrelated it is?” Trump reportedly said. “They’re going to spend years digging through my whole life and finances.
“They’re out to get me. This is an injustice. This is unfair. How could this have happened? It’s all Jeff Sessions’ fault. This is all politically motivated. Rod Rosenstein doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. He’s a Democrat. He’s from Maryland.
“I’m getting punched. I have to punch back. In order for it to be a fair fight, I have to be fighting.”
MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said “every tax return, every scandal” could now be examined.
Her colleague Kurt Bardella said five members of Trump’s Cabinet — Ryan Zinke, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Kirstjen Nielsen and Wilbur Ross — could face fresh pressure from the House Oversight Committee.
“For the better part of the last two years, the House Oversight Committee has gone dormant,” Bardella wrote. “Chairman Trey Gowdy hasn’t sent a single subpoena to the Trump administration.
“Democrats, however, will have no such hesitation.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NOW?
Trump’s acting Attorney-General is on his side. In August 2017, Whitaker wrote on CNN that looking into Trump’s personal finances, or those of his family, “goes beyond the scope of the appointment of the special counsel”.
Whitaker, a conservative legal commentator before he joined Sessions’ staff, last year suggested making Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt”.
He also defended Trump’s son, Donald Jr, for meeting with Russians at Trump Tower in the hope of securing dirt on Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“You would always take that meeting,” he said.
The meeting, and the Trump family’s attempts to keep it secret, have been a focal point for the investigation.
Nancy Pelosi, who leads the Democrats in the House of Representatives, called Sessions’ firing a “blatant attempt” to undermine the probe.
She said Whitaker should follow in Sessions’ footsteps and recuse himself from the Russia probe.
Whitaker’s associates told The Washington Post he would not be doing so — and would not approve a subpoena of Trump.
Democratic party Senate leader Chuck Schumer said: “Clearly, the President has something to hide.”
Even some Republicans appear to have shared the Democrats’ concern over the future of the inquiry, with Senator Susan Collins and Mitt Romney saying it should not be impeded.
Russia insisted Sessions’ firing would have no affect on the Mueller probe, while White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said the sacking was “not a constitutional crisis”.
Asked whether Trump had instructed Whitaker to limit the investigation, she said: “(The) President hasn’t instructed him to do anything.”
Trump now needs a permanent replacement for Sessions. He is reportedly considering former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Attorney-General Pam Bondi, sources familiar with the matter told CNN.
Christie, a former lawyer, could face calls to recuse himself like Sessions, since he was a 2016 campaign surrogate for Trump. Bondi could also be a controversial choice because of a $US25,000 gift she received from Trump’s foundation during her 2016 re-election campaign.
The nominee will need to be confirmed by a vote in the Senate — a process that should be made easier by the Republicans’ seat gains.
Congressman Jerry Nadler, incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman, said the sacking fitted a “clear pattern of interference” from Trump.
“There is no mistaking what this means, and what is at stake. This is a constitutionally perilous moment for our country and for the President,” Nadler said.
“Donald Trump may think he has the power to hire and fire whomever he pleases, but he cannot take such action if it is determined that it is for the purposes of subverting the rule of law and obstructing justice.
“If he abuses his office in such a fashion, then there will be consequences.”
Nadler said it would be “inappropriate” for Whitaker to supervise the special counsel investigation.
The President also yesterday threatened to try another tactic to stop the Democrats digging too deep — launching an investigation of his own into “leaks” and “much else” through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Meanwhile, Mueller — a Republican — will be trying to ensure his findings are revealed, with his team now writing a final report. Trump was said to be reviewing his written answers as he prepared to fire Sessions.
The President cannot directly sack the special counsel. But Sessions’ replacement will have the power to do so, or end the inquiry.
Whitaker has called on Rosenstein to “order Mueller to limit the scope of the investigation” or risk the inquiry starting “to look like a political fishing expedition”.
Rosenstein, also a Republican, appointed Mueller to lead the inquiry after Trump fired FBI director James Comey in 2017.
There has also been a question mark over Rosenstein’s future since it was alleged he had discussed invoking a constitutional clause to oust Trump.