Loyalist could limit Mueller’s authority, budget

Rosalind S. Helderman, Matt Zapotosky, Carol D. Leonnig | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The future of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign was thrown into uncertainty Wednesday after President Donald Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, giving a political loyalist oversight of the probe.

Trump named as acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, who as a legal commentator last year wrote that Special Counsel Robert Mueller appeared to be taking his investigation too far.

A Justice Department official said Wednesday that Whitaker would assume final decision-making authority over the special counsel probe instead of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Since last year, Rosenstein has overseen the investigation because Sessions, a key Trump surrogate in 2016, recused himself from dealing with matters involving the campaign. It wasn’t immediately clear what role, if any, Rosenstein may play in the probe going forward.

As acting attorney general, Whitaker could sharply curtail Mueller’s authority, cut his budget or order him to cease lines of inquiry.

Within hours of his appointment, there were mounting calls by congressional Democrats and government watchdog groups for Whitaker to recuse himself, citing critical comments he made about Mueller’s investigation.

Furious Democrats, emboldened by winning control of the House in Tuesday’s elections, also promised to investigate Sessions’ forced resignation and suggested Trump’s actions could amount to obstruction of justice if he intended to disrupt the criminal probe.

“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,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement. He is set to take over in January as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that would oversee any impeachment proceedings.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called Wednesday’s events “a break-the-glass moment” and said he would be introducing legislation to protect Mueller’s work.

“Any attempt to limit his resources or the scope of his investigation is unacceptable,” he said. “The world, and history, are watching.”

A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.

Trump’s decision to push Sessions out conflicted with comments he offered during a news conference on Wednesday when he insisted he had a right to end the investigation but said that he would prefer to “let it go on.”

“I could fire everybody right now, but I don’t want to stop it because politically I don’t like stopping it,” Trump said. “It’s a disgrace. It should never have been started, because there is no crime.”

Justice Department officials said Whitaker will follow the regular process for reviewing possible ethical conflicts, a process that involves ethics lawyers reviewing an official’s past work to see whether there are financial or personal conflicts that preclude them from being involved in particular cases.

Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney in Iowa, once mused as a legal commentator about how a Sessions replacement might reduce Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” In an August 2017 tweet, he wrote that an opinion piece calling the special counsel investigation a “Mueller lynch mob” was …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Nation, World


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