Last night Donald Trump’s newly installed Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker blinked by announcing that he was going to seek advice from Department of Justice ethics officials as to whether he needed to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation. Whether Whitaker is serious about recusing or not, he just made it a lot easier for Democrats to ultimately force him to recuse, because he just admitted to a potential conflict. Even as this plays out, Democrats move forward with their strategy to force Whitaker out.
Half of the strategy consists of challenging Donald Trump’s claim that Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned voluntarily. The options for DOJ succession are dramatically different depending upon whether Sessions resigned or was fired. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein officially called for Senate Judiciary Committee hearings today, with Whitaker and Sessions both testifying. The key here: Feinstein states that Sessions was “forced out of his position.”
This lines up with Sessions’ words in his resignation letter, in which he stated that he was resigning at Trump’s request. If the Democrats can get this to stick, it’ll mean that Donald Trump wasn’t in position to arbitrarily appoint an outsider like Whitaker to replace Sessions, even on an acting basis. It’s not clear if the GOP-controlled Senate will allow these hearings to happen. But if not, House Democrats can hold a similar hearing once they take majority control.
The second half of the Democrats’ strategy involves battling it out in court right now, thanks to the handiwork of the Maryland Attorney General. He’s trying to get a federal judge to rule that Matthew Whitaker is not legally the Acting Attorney General, despite having been appointed, and that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein still has control over the Trump-Russia investigation. In any case, it’s clear the Democrats aren’t taking this lying down.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report