What We Know About the Acting Attorney General

Lucinda Isaacs, ‘22

On Wednesday November 7th, a day after the midterms that cost Republicans 33 House seats, President Donald Trump fired his Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, and replaced him with Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who had served as Sessions’ chief of staff. This shake up did not come out of the blue, as Trump has been vocal about his dislike for Sessions for months, particularly about his decision to recuse himself from Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions was an early supporter Trump, and one of the first politicians to endorse him as the Republican Presidential Nominee. Sessions has shown continued support of Trump’s heavily criticized policies. However, the recusal seemed to be too much for President Trump, and he has been under constant fire from the president, with rumours that Trump had referred to the former Alabama senator as a “Dumb Southerner,” and “Traitor,” circulating the news for months.

Matthew Whitaker is not the permanent replacement for the position. In fact, he can hold it for a maximum of only 210 days before having to face the congressional confirmation process. Mitch McConnell and other republican politicians have commented that Whitaker’s position will likely not hold past June, when he will have to be reviewed and confirmed by the Senate if he wants to hold his appointment. Whitaker himself has proven very loyal to Trump, especially where Trump felt Sessions was lacking. Whitaker has made numerous CNN appearances where he criticized Robert Mueller's investigation. He even commented that he could foresee a situation where  the “Attorney General doesn't fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt," as reported by Kathryn Watson in the CBS News piece, “What can and can't Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker do about Mueller?”

 Now, this is a very real possibility. Sessions had recused himself from the investigation, his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein overseeing the investigation. However Whitaker has made no indications that he plans to follow suit and recuse himself as well.

Whitaker’s power is not small, and he holds a lot of control over the Russia investigation, which for many, raises a lot of red flags. His power could be used to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation, his budget, or in theory, even fire him. While he hasn’t explicitly said that he plans to do any of these things, the timing of his appointment is unnerving, occurring just as the Democrats have begun to take back power in congress. Whitaker should certainly be watched closely, his appointment is only the very beginning of the story. What’s far more important is how he plans on using his newfound power.