Jeff Sessions out as attorney general

FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2018, file photo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses before speaking during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington. A U.S. judge Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, struck down a California law challenged by the Trump administration that aimed to give the state power to override the sale of federal lands. "The court's ruling is a firm rejection of California's assertion that, by legislation, it could dictate how and when the federal government sells federal land," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. "This was a stunning assertion of constitutional power by California, and it was properly and promptly dismissed by the district judge." (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

(RNN) - The fallout after the midterm elections has begun. After a tumultuous relationship with President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Session has resigned at the president’s request.

“We are pleased to announce that Matthew Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well,” the president tweeted.

“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.”

In his resignation letter to the president, Sessions said he was stepping down.

“At your request, I am submitting my resignation,” Sessions said.

“I thank Jeff Sessions for his dedicated service as Attorney General," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Throughout his career, as a prosecutor, a Senator and as Attorney General, he remained steadfast in his commitment to the rule of law and his love of our great nation. I wish him well and look forward to working with him in any future endeavors.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina praised Sessions.

“Jeff Sessions served our nation well and honorably as Attorney General,” Graham tweeted. “He has dedicated his whole life to conservatism and upholding the Rule of Law.”

Graham, the chairman of the judiciary committee, said he looks forward to working with Trump to find Sessions' successor.

Many political pundits have suggested that Graham may be vying for the gig.

Acting attorney general

Whitaker, a 49-year-old former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, was appointed Sessions’ chief of staff in September 2017.

He is expected to take over the supervisory role of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who met with the president Wednesday afternoon. The meeting was scheduled before Sessions' ousting.

The month before his appointment, Whitaker wrote an opinion piece for CNN’s website critical of the special counsel’s investigation.

Whitaker could reduce Mueller’s budget and order him to stop investigating specific aspects of the probe. He has said publicly that a Sessions replacement would reduce Mueller’s budget so “that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.”

Special counsel investigation

Top Democrats immediately cast a spotlight on Mueller’s probe, warning the president not to interfere.

“It is impossible to read Attorney General Sessions’ firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by @realDonaldTrump to undermine & end Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.

“Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said Wednesday. “It would create a constitutional crisis if this were a prelude to ending or greatly limiting the Mueller investigation.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder sounded a similar warning.

“Anyone who attempts to interfere with or obstruct the Mueller inquiry must be held accountable,” he said on Twitter. “This is a red line. We are a nation of laws and norms not subject to the self interested actions of one man.”

Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the intelligence committee, also suggested that Trump watch his step and called on other members of Congress to back him.

“While the President may have the authority to replace the Attorney General, this must not be the first step in an attempt to impede, obstruct or end the Mueller investigation,” he said on Twitter. "No one is above the law and any effort to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation would be a gross abuse of power by the President.

“Senators from both parties have repeatedly affirmed their support for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Every one of them should speak out now and deliver a clear message to the President that the Special Counsel’s investigation must continue without interference.”

Troubled relationship

The president and Session have long been at odds, with Trump barely concealing his distaste for his attorney general.

“I don’t have an attorney general,” Trump told Hill.TV in September.

Trump considered Sessions a “dumb Southerner,” going so far to mock his accent, according to the book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

"This guy is mentally retarded. He's this dumb Southerner ... He couldn't even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama," Woodward quotes Trump as saying.

The president also privately labeled Sessions a "traitor," according to the book.

Trump never forgave Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, even openly tweeting in May that he wished he'd picked someone else.

The president signaled he finally had enough in a Fox News interview on Aug. 24 after months of taking shots at the attorney general.

“I put in an attorney general who never took control of the Justice Department. Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department,” Trump told the network. “Even my enemies say that, ‘Jeff Sessions should have told you that he was going to recuse himself and then you wouldn’t have put him in.’”

Sessions hit back in a statement, saying: "I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in. While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."

Trump then quoted that statement and wrote in another tweet that Sessions should "look into" a dozen of the president's pet annoyances, including Hillary Clinton's emails, the so-called Steele dossier and "Russian collusion by Dems."

"Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!" Trump wrote.

Sessions' March 2017 recusal from the Russia investigation left Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the probe, and he appointed Mueller as the special counsel.

Republican Congressional leaders, who had long stood by their former colleague, also finally indicated they would accept a change.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who'd once said there would be "holy hell to pay" if Trump fired Sessions, most notably changed his tune.

"The president's entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that's qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice," Graham told Reuters.

Pundits after Session’s ousting are floating Graham’s name as a possible replacement.

Sessions had taken heat from Trump throughout his time leading the Justice Department.

As early as July 2017, Trump said in an interview with the New York Times he wouldn't have hired Sessions had he known in advance he'd recuse himself.

"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.' It's extremely unfair, and that's a mild word, to the president," Trump said.

Sessions nonetheless resolutely pursued Trump's agenda at the Justice Department.

He announced the administration's "zero-tolerance" family separation policy, and oversaw its implementation.

"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Sessions said in May. "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law."

As the policy drew wide condemnation, Sessions defended it. When Trump abandoned it, Sessions defended it still.

Sessions was the senator from Alabama from 1996 until he resigned to become attorney general, rewarded by Trump for being the first senator to endorse the then-candidate in 2016.

Prior to entering the Senate, he was the attorney general of Alabama for two years. He had previously been a U.S. attorney in the state for 12 years, a position to which he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

Sessions was born in Selma, AL, and grew up about an hour away in Hybart. He served in the Army Reserve from 1973 to 1986 after earning his law degree from the University of Alabama.

During his time as senator, he ranked as one of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress.

He supported the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

He opposes abortion, voted against the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package.

He worked as a private attorney in Alabama before President Ronald Reagan nominated him as a U.S. attorney in 1981.

His nomination for a federal judgeship failed in 1986 when the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats led by Sen. Ted Kennedy called him out for "racially charged comments."

A former federal prosecutor testified at the time that Sessions had called the ACLU and the NAACP "un-American" and "communist-inspired."

Members of the NAACP staged a sit-in in his Mobile, AL, office last January to protest his nomination as U.S. Attorney General.

He has been married to his wife, Mary, since 1969, and they have three children - Mary, Ruth and Sam.

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