Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a dead man walking for months. On Wednesday, just one day after the midterm election, President Donald Trump finally put him out of his misery — while opening the way for more misery for the nation.
Sessions was forced out by a president who’d been cyberbullying him for months and undermining him for even longer, ever since Sessions had the temerity to do the right thing in March 2017 by recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
That led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Trump was outraged, and his attacks on Sessions, one of his earliest and staunchest supporters, only grew more shameful and derisive over time.
Worse than Sessions’ ouster is Trump’s choice of his replacement. The president quickly named Matthew Whitaker, who has been Sessions’ chief of staff, to be acting attorney general, giving him oversight of Mueller, who has already indicted or gotten guilty pleas from more than 30 people and won a conviction against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.
Whitaker’s main qualification seems to be that he has been a critic of Mueller’s inquiry. In a CNN interview last year, Whitaker spun out a scenario where Sessions might be replaced by an acting attorney general who “doesn’t fire Bob Mueller” but starves the investigation with budget cuts.
Was that meant as a job application?
Whitaker’s brazen attitude, combined with Trump’s view of the Justice Department as a tool to do his political bidding rather than as an independent agency bound to enforce the law without fear or favor, puts the country at a precarious moment.
The last time the nation was at a similarly frightening juncture was 1973, when President Richard Nixon tried to get his attorney general to fire the first Watergate special prosecutor. In what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, the attorney general and his deputy left office rather than obey, and Nixon’s presidency did not end well.
Now it’s up to Congress and the public to ensure that Sessions’ firing wasn’t the first step in a slow-motion Wednesday Afternoon Massacre. Mueller must be allowed to complete his investigation and issue his report without interference.