The Latest On Jeff Sessions
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's keep up with the basics of the firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A big question that we're pursuing this morning is how the new acting attorney general could affect the Russia investigation. Matthew Whitaker is that acting attorney general described as a Trump loyalist. He will replace Sessions. So now there's a lot of uncertainty. Remember; Mueller is the special counsel, former FBI director, widely respected, has brought indictments and convictions and guilty pleas against many people with ties to the president. Mueller has been wanting to question the president himself. NPR national justice - NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joined us earlier today.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Remember that Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, recused himself from the Russia probe on the grounds that he was affiliated with and was a big ally of the Trump campaign in 2016, which was under investigation by the special counsel, so the reasoning was he couldn't oversee the investigation. That left this whole matter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been supervising Mueller for over a year now.
But when the president finally decided it was time for Jeff Sessions to go, he leapfrogged over the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and has installed Matt Whitaker in his place as the acting attorney general, the man to see when it comes to this Russia investigation.
INSKEEP: So this means that Robert Mueller, from time to time, has to go to Whitaker, who is his boss, and say, here's what I'm doing. You have any instructions for me?
JOHNSON: That's right - approval over budget issues, over indictments and over whether a final report by the special counsel will ultimately become public.
INSKEEP: Whitaker has expressed some opinions about that special counsel investigation. I want to hear one. Last year, he was on CNN and suggested a way to end the investigation, it seemed.
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MATTHEW WHITAKER: I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment, and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget so low that his investigation grinds to a - almost a halt.
INSKEEP: OK. I could see a scenario where this happens, he says. Was he just talking, filling time on TV?
JOHNSON: Well, I guess we'll find out. Matt Whitaker also has a record of making other statements about this investigation, saying there was nothing wrong with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey, which prompted the special counsel appointment in the first place. There are some questions now about whether Matt Whitaker is going to take off his political opinion hat and put on the hat of the acting attorney general.
He is a former U.S. attorney from Iowa in the George W. Bush administration, so he does have DOJ experience. But Democrats, in particular, are quite concerned about whether he's tipped his hand as to how he feels about this Mueller probe.
INSKEEP: Carrie, I want to take a moment to hear your thoughts about Jeff Sessions, the departed attorney general who you covered for a couple of years. This is a guy I know who was scorned by many Trump supporters for not seeming supportive enough of his president, which wasn't his job, but also scorned by people on the left because of the immigration and other policies that he backed. What are his friends and supporters saying of his two years as attorney general?
JOHNSON: A lot of supportive statements overnight, Steve, from Sessions' former colleagues in the Senate. They say he had a 40-year dedicated record of public service. He did a lot to crack down on immigration and asylum, which is one of Donald Trump's top priorities. And his heart was in the right place. He wanted to do the right thing. That's why he recused himself from the Russia probe, which put him in the president's ill graces to begin with.
INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks so much, really appreciate it.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.