Trump strikes, sensing post-midterm window to wound Mueller

President Donald Trump's sudden...

Posted: Nov 8, 2018 3:13 PM
Updated: Nov 8, 2018 3:13 PM

President Donald Trump's sudden dismissal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a swift strike to exploit Washington's new power dynamics after the midterm elections.

It represents a huge risk since Trump's ultimate aim seems to be to endanger special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe, and the move is almost certain to lead to an immediate investigation once the new Democratic House majority gathers in January.

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In a way, Wednesday was peak Trump, with the President making a transparent effort to change the narrative after the GOP's monopoly on Washington power crumbled on Tuesday.

But the grave implications of ousting Sessions mean it adds up to much more than a normal Trump head fake to drown out a damaging headline.

His canning of the former Alabama senator and the widened Republican Senate majority mean he can install whoever he likes at the Justice Department -- giving him effective control over the investigation into his own campaign's actions.

With a single swipe, he rid himself of an attorney general who had recused himself from the Russia probe. Trump had been tormenting Sessions on Twitter for months.

He immediately replaced him with an acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, who is on record, including in an outspoken CNN opinion piece, expressing fierce opposition to the Russia investigation.

"It's a break the glass moment," Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told CNN's Kate Bolduan on Wednesday night.

"Our democracy is under attack. It's a kind of a slow-motion 'Saturday Night Massacre,' as occurred under President Nixon."

Whitaker, who served Sessions at the Justice Department as his chief of staff, now has the power to oversee Mueller, who is seen as moving toward the end of his investigation. Whitaker could narrow the range of the special counsel's mandate or limit funds for his work. It's possible he could also control whether any final report is made public. And he could lay the groundwork to dismiss Mueller.

Whitaker's elevation also wrested control of the Russia probe away from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has shielded Mueller, and is viewed in Washington as a nonpolitical career official acting with integrity.

Changing the subject

It's not Trump's style to admit mistakes. So he turned the traditional grim post-midterms presidential news conference into a sideshow while waging a base-pleasing war on the press with a fulminating display at a post-election news conference.

Not for Trump the gloom and self-recrimination of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama when they bemoaned a midterm "thumpin' " and a "shellacking." Rather than express guilt about lawmakers who lost their jobs, Trump openly bid good riddance to Republicans who had spurned his "embrace."

"Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia," Trump said, of a Utah lawmaker whose race is yet to be called.

Following a playbook that had helped him quickly forget business failures in his previous life, he simply declared victory -- hailing an increased GOP majority in the Senate as an "incredible day" that he had been instrumental in building -- and moved on.

It's not unusual for Cabinet officials to pay the price for their boss's failure at the polls. There was an ironic precedent to the toppling of Sessions. Twelve years ago, as Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi was setting the terms for a new political alignment after winning the House -- just as she was Wednesday -- Bush forced out his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

The President has every right to dismiss any of his Cabinet officials. But his open denunciations of the Mueller probe and months of attacks on the special counsel mean that Trump's critics are deeply skeptical of his motives.

Dangerous ground for Mueller

The swift succession of events appeared to leave Mueller on dangerous new ground.

"You can't sound too many alarm bells about what has been going on," Preet Bharara, former US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on CNN's "The Situation Room."

From the outside, Trump's move against Sessions looked very much like the latest in a sequence of steps, starting with the firing of FBI chief James Comey last year, to undermine the Russia investigation.

With that in mind, some legal experts questioned whether the backstory of what happened could eventually be perceived as more evidence of corrupt intent, which would be needed to support any finding by Mueller that the President had obstructed justice.

Trump has repeatedly demanded loyalty and protection from his subordinates and Whitaker may soon begin to feel the same kind of heat.

The President's move presented an immediate challenge to Pelosi, who he had praised earlier Wednesday for her likely return to the speaker's chair, and offered to open a new era of deal making between Washington power players.

She said it was impossible to see the firing of Sessions as "anything other than another blatant attempt" to undermine and end the Mueller investigation.

But as she also called for Whitaker to recuse himself, Pelosi knows, just like Trump, that there are two months before Democrats have the means to check the President's power.

It could be that Trump is calculating that he has a window to do as much as he possibly can to stifle Mueller's room to maneuver, under the cover of the sympathetic outgoing Republican-led House and the GOP Senate.

"The moment of precariousness is, I think, especially significant now because we are in the lame duck phase," said Bharara.

"You have an opportunity to do something very damaging to that investigation."

Trump may also have been emboldened by the replenishment of his power offered by strong support from his political base, which turned out in droves to push his acolytes over the line in key Senate races in red states.

And his task of confirming a new attorney general becomes even easier in a Senate that has more Republicans and is even more in his debt.

Trump was not content Wednesday with casting a new cloud over Mueller.

He threatened openly to weaponize one part of the federal government, the Republican-led Senate, against another, the new House that takes office next year, if the pain of oversight becomes too acute.

"They can play that game, but we can play it better," Trump said at his news conference.

Such a move would surely amount to an abuse of presidential authority in the unlikely event that Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a student of the separation of powers, would go along.

Still, the President's comment represented a warning that he would try to strong-arm the newly Trumpian Senate into following his will, much as he did to parts of the Republican-led House, including the Intelligence Committee.

It is far from the first time Trump has vowed to wield presidential power to further his political goals. On the campaign trail he vowed to wipe out the constitutionally guaranteed birthright citizenship with an executive order.

And using his powers as commander in chief, Trump sent thousands of troops to the southern border to meet a yet to emerge threat from a migrant caravan that was at the center of his searing campaign message.

But if his move against Sessions, was, as it appears, meant to hike pressure on Mueller, it could just as easily backfire since it seems almost certain the new Democratic-led Judiciary Committee will look into the dismissal early in its tenure.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 248189

Reported Deaths: 5411
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto16841171
Hinds15890312
Harrison13037191
Rankin10439205
Jackson10128177
Lee8721135
Madison8071160
Jones6166108
Forrest5870117
Lauderdale5724177
Lowndes5238109
Lafayette486192
Lamar475363
Washington4734122
Bolivar3941106
Oktibbeha388179
Panola360475
Pontotoc358752
Monroe3487103
Warren337895
Union337457
Marshall336065
Neshoba3325150
Pearl River319492
Leflore2980104
Lincoln293385
Sunflower277569
Tate266659
Alcorn260651
Itawamba258858
Pike258176
Hancock253557
Prentiss242450
Scott241043
Yazoo237754
Copiah237449
Tippah236246
Simpson232367
Leake227864
Coahoma223154
Grenada215770
Covington208871
Marion206171
Adams201666
Winston198061
George197438
Wayne196130
Attala191658
Newton186542
Chickasaw181243
Tishomingo179659
Holmes167867
Jasper165134
Clay156732
Stone140218
Tallahatchie138234
Clarke136460
Calhoun133321
Smith118823
Yalobusha113834
Walthall111136
Noxubee109622
Greene108929
Montgomery108134
Carroll103721
Lawrence101217
Perry99131
Amite96425
Webster90624
Claiborne85125
Tunica84521
Jefferson Davis83825
Humphreys81524
Benton80323
Kemper75720
Quitman6758
Franklin65315
Choctaw59613
Wilkinson58125
Jefferson53019
Sharkey42417
Issaquena1586
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 417528

Reported Deaths: 6030
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson61313888
Mobile29768542
Madison26637185
Tuscaloosa20580268
Montgomery18696304
Shelby18310113
Baldwin16002179
Lee12261101
Morgan12093112
Etowah11604157
Calhoun10982200
Marshall10108107
Houston8474129
Cullman7960104
Limestone790174
Elmore7723101
DeKalb764697
St. Clair7460120
Lauderdale745183
Talladega6102108
Walker5852174
Jackson574441
Blount526483
Colbert525670
Autauga510355
Coffee434256
Dale391081
Franklin363445
Chilton333565
Covington326167
Russell323810
Escambia312442
Dallas300296
Clarke278233
Chambers277869
Tallapoosa2599107
Pike245829
Marion240549
Lawrence240447
Winston223835
Bibb213047
Geneva197431
Marengo197329
Pickens195231
Hale173742
Barbour171236
Butler167958
Fayette166026
Cherokee159630
Henry151119
Monroe144417
Randolph138535
Washington136526
Clay125246
Crenshaw118044
Lamar116619
Cleburne116023
Macon113335
Lowndes108735
Wilcox101221
Bullock98128
Perry95419
Conecuh92920
Sumter88726
Greene75323
Coosa60414
Choctaw51224
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