WASHINGTON – The forced resignation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general has caused profound leadership changes at the Justice Department, above all affecting oversight of the investigation into ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.
A look at the responsibilities of the Justice Department’s top two leaders and the special counsel running the department’s most consequential and politically sensitive investigation.
The new acting attorney general, Whitaker will assume the duties and responsibilities fulfilled by Sessions. It’s a job he knows well given that Whitaker has spent the last year as Sessions’ chief of staff.
Whitaker is expected to assume oversight of Mueller’s Russia investigation. That would give him authority over funding and allow him to make critical decisions such as signing off on charges and determining whether Trump should be subpoenaed.
But if Whitaker moves to curtail Mueller, he would eventually have to disclose that to Congress.
Under the special counsel regulations, the attorney general must notify the leaders of congressional judiciary committees of any time he rejected a proposed action by Mueller because he deemed it “inappropriate or unwarranted” under department policy. That information would be disclosed to Congress at the end of the investigation, the regulations say.
Congressional Democrats are calling on Whitaker to recuse himself because of comments he made before joining the Justice Department that were critical and skeptical of the probe.
Those include an opinion piece on CNN.com in which he said Mueller would be going too far, and straying beyond his mandate, if he were to investigate Trump’s family finances. In an interview last year with a conservative talk radio host, Whitaker said there was “no collusion” between Trump’s campaign and Russia, a key question being examined by Mueller.
It’s not clear that Whitaker will need to step aside, and there were no signs Thursday that he intended to do so. Sessions recused himself in March 2017 because of his work on Trump’s campaign and following the revelation that he had met during the 2016 campaign with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
As deputy attorney general, Rosenstein is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Justice Department, including the activities of the country’s U.S. attorneys. One of those offices, in New York, is leading an investigation involving the president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and hush money payments Cohen says he made to two women who say they had sex with Trump.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel after Sessions recused himself and after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey.
The No. 2 official remains in his position with most of the same duties as before, even though his own job status has appeared questionable at times. It’s possible he’ll still play a role in the Mueller investigation, but the Justice Department made clear Wednesday that Whitaker “is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.”
The former FBI director has been working with a team of prosecutors and agents for the last year and a half to investigate whether the Trump campaign illegally co-ordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election, and whether Trump tried to obstruct that investigation.
The investigation has produced 32 criminal charges, including guilty pleas from four former Trump associates.
But the key collusion and obstruction questions that underpin the investigation remain unanswered, and a grand jury in Washington continues to hear evidence about Trump confidant Roger Stone.
Mueller, who has been negotiating with Trump’s lawyers about interviewing the president, is expected to produce a written report for the Justice Department that explains the findings, though it’s not clear how much will be public.
Associated Press writer Chad Day in Washington contributed to this report.