President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions less than 24 hours after the midterms results came in.
Sessions was the first and perhaps most enthusiastic sitting senator to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign, but his departure comes as no surprise. His removal was long expected after Trump spent much of Sessions’ tenure berating the former Alabama Republican senator after he recused himself from the Russia investigation.
“I don’t have an attorney general,” Trump once said of Sessions, making clear he wanted an attorney general who would protect him. Sessions, a former member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recused himself because he had been one of Trump’s campaign advisers during the period that other campaign staff met with Russians about opposition research on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump announced the decision Wednesday via Twitter and thanked him for his service.
Trump signaled during a lengthy news conference Wednesday that he would continue to shake up White House staff and Cabinet positions following the midterm loss of the House.
Some Republicans lament that the vacancies will be difficult to fill because they may not be able to recruit top tier staff to a chaotic White House. On Wednesday, Trump suggested he may replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has been criticized for lavish spending and is facing corruption allegations.
Here are the key takeaways of Sessions removal:
Changes in the Russia probe
On the Russia investigation, Session’s departure would allow for a new attorney general to oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and could limit the scope of what the special counsel can explore or shut down the entire investigation. The acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker — currently Sessions’ chief of staff — has written opinion pieces that Mueller’s probe should be shut down.
While Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – whose own job stability is uncertain - took over the probe and appointed Mueller, a new attorney general presumably would not have the same conflicts as Sessions and could reassert his or her role.
Loss of an immigration architect
On immigration, Sessions’ departure eliminates one of the key architects of Trump’s immigration strategy. Sessions pushed many of Trump’s pro-enforcement campaign priorities as a senator who made immigration enforcement one of his signature issues.
As attorney general, Sessions also led the administration’s efforts to clamp down on so-called Sanctuary Cities and threatened to cut federal funding to cities that didn’t cooperate with federal enforcement measures. Sessions also announced Trump’s controversial “zero-tolerance” policy that included separating parents from their children at the southern border that was ultimately reversed.
Making pot sales easier?
Sessions began allowing individual federal prosecutors in states where marijuana is legal to decide how to enforce the federal ban on marijuana sale or possession. It rescinded an Obama-era policy that allowed federal law enforcement officials to not interfere in states that chose to legalize marijuana as long as they abided by certain restrictions. Many states have legalized some form of medical marijuana, and a handful have legalized recreational use of the drug.
Dozens of applications by various groups to grow cannabis for research purposes have stalled under Sessions. Because marijuana is a schedule I drug, anyone conducting federally-approved scientific research of the drug has to buy it from an approved facility. The only approved facility is the University of Mississippi. The Drug Enforcement Administration loosened rules in August 2016 to allow other facilities to be approved, but the Department of Justice has not approved any of those applications under the tenure of Sessions.
A defender of the FBI
Sessions was one of the few in the administration willing to stand up to what he described as ‘unfair’ criticism of the FBI by President Trump and former congressional colleagues. Trump has blasted FBI leadership as biased and said its reputation was in tatters after an FBI agent was discovered sharing anti-Trump text messages.
Sessions repeatedly found himself caught between his boss and the bureau, which is part of the Department of Justice, as well as links between Russia and Trump’s election campaign. But his response was also tepid at times, appearing to appease Trump during periods of public attacks on the bureau and Justice Department.
Kate Irby in Washington contributed.