Read: The partisan, nihilist case against Robert Mueller
In reality, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave Mueller a fairly broad mandate when he appointed him following Sessions’s recusal in May 2017: Mueller was free to investigate not only Russia’s election interference and potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, but “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” as well. Mueller has also been farming out aspects of the investigation to prosecutors in New York and Washington, D.C., that don’t fall squarely within his mandate.
Moreover, intelligence and law-enforcement experts—as well as sitting members of Congress—have pointed out that the question of whether Russia has any kind of financial leverage over the president is highly relevant to determining whether Trump could have been coerced into conspiring with Moscow’s election interference in 2016. Indeed, several of the Justice Department and FBI officials who have investigated Trump’s campaign—and who have been attacked by Trump directly—have extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia.
David Laufman, a former high-ranking DOJ official who oversaw parts of the Russia investigation in his role as chief of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, said Trump’s “installation of a political loyalist who previously questioned the merits of the special counsel investigation must be viewed precisely for what it is: a preliminary assault on the special counsel's latitude to complete his essential work and by extension on the rule of law.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday, following Sessions’s resignation, that Whitaker “should recuse himself from” the Russia probe “for the duration of his time as acting attorney general” given his previous comments “advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation.” Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, who is set to chair the House Oversight Committee when the new Congress convenes next year, called Whitaker’s supervision of the Russia probe “wholly inappropriate” and told the Justice Department to preserve documents in preparation for an inquiry into his appointment. House Democrats could also opt to subpoena Whitaker to testify under oath once they take power in January.
Trump’s move could still backfire. Without the administration’s protection, Sessions may now find himself both more vulnerable and more inclined to cooperate with Mueller, who has been investigating a period last summer when Trump privately discussed firing Sessions and attacked him in a series of tweets. At one point, the FBI opened an investigation into whether Sessions perjured himself in congressional testimony when he said he had no contact with Russians during the campaign.“It’s possible that Sessions will now be either angry or, at a minimum, no longer feel any need to curry favor with the president,” Kris said. Sessions’s conversations during the campaign with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos have been closely scrutinized by the special counsel, moreover, and Sessions’s campaign-era interactions with Trump would not be covered by executive privilege, Kris noted.
Sessions had mostly laid low in the face of the president’s taunts, but he’s not shied away from defending himself when necessary. “I took control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in,” he said in August. “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. I demand the highest standards, and where they are not met, I take action.”