STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Rosenstein: Whitaker a superb choice

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was a "superb choice" to replace Jeff Sessions. CNN's Laura Jarret reports.

Posted: Nov 11, 2018 12:19 PM
Updated: Nov 11, 2018 12:19 PM

When things were particularly bad between President Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general's chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, would attend White House meetings in his place.

But Sessions did not know that Whitaker at the same time was angling for a promotion.

Whitaker, who was installed at the Justice Department by powerful White House allies, "spoke and behaved like he was attorney general," a source with knowledge of the meetings said.

Wednesday, Whitaker got the job when Trump made him acting attorney general.

Trump's move puts Whitaker in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. It has also created new controversies, with legal experts debating about the legality of the appointment and news stories featuring his past criticisms of Mueller and defense of Trump.

The transformation of Sessions from influential early backer of Trump's improbable presidential campaign to frequent target of the President's scorn is a study in the fickleness of political alliances in Washington.

On Wednesday, the attorney general received the call everyone in Washington knew was coming some day soon.

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, asked Sessions to submit his resignation, according to multiple sources briefed on the call. Sessions agreed to comply, but he wanted a few more days before the resignation would become effective. Kelly said he'd consult the President.

Soon, the sources say, top Justice officials convened on the 5th floor suite of offices for the attorney general. Eventually, there were two huddles in separate offices. Among those in Sessions' office was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, his deputy Ed O'Callaghan, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Steven Engel, who heads the Office of Legal Counsel.

A few yards away, Whitaker strategized with other aides, including Gary Barnett, now his chief of staff.

The rival huddles, which haven't been previously reported, laid bare a break in the relationship between Sessions and Whitaker that had emerged in recent weeks, after it became clear that Whitaker played a behind-the-scenes role in an aborted effort to oust Rosenstein.

A source close to Sessions says that the former attorney general realized that Whitaker was "self-dealing" after reports surfaced in September that Whitaker had spoken with Kelly and had discussed plans to become the No. 2 at the Justice Department if Rosenstein was forced to resign.

In recent months, with his relationship with the President at a new low, Sessions skipped several so-called principals meetings that he was slated to attend as a key member of the Cabinet. A source close to Sessions says that neither the attorney general nor Trump thought it was a good idea for Sessions to be at the White House, so he sent surrogates. Whitaker was one of them.

But Sessions did not realize Whitaker was having conversations with the White House about his future until the news broke in late September about Rosenstein.

On Wednesday as aides began drafting Sessions' resignation letter, the distrust for Whitaker burst into the open.

The fact that Whitaker would become acting attorney general, passing over Rosenstein suddenly raised concerns about the impact on the most high-profile investigation in the Justice Department, the Russia probe led by Mueller. The Mueller probe has been at the center of Trump's ire directed at Sessions and the Justice Department. Whitaker has made comments criticizing Mueller's investigation and Rosenstein's oversight of it, and has questioned the allegations of Russian interference.

Rosenstein and O'Callaghan, the highest-ranked officials handling day-to-day oversight of Mueller's investigation, urged Sessions to delay the effective date of his resignation.

Soon, Whitaker strode into Sessions' office and asked to speak one-on-one to the attorney general; the others left the two men alone. It was a brief conversation. Shortly after, Sessions told his huddle that his resignation would be effective that day.

O'Callaghan had tried to appeal to Sessions, noting that he hadn't heard back about whether the President would allow a delay. At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker's appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional. Someone also reminded Sessions that the last time Whitaker played a role in a purported resignation -- a few weeks earlier in September, with Rosenstein -- the plan collapsed.

Sessions never heard in person from the President -- the man who gained television fame for his catch-phrase "You're fired" doesn't actually like such confrontation and prefers to have others do the firing, people close to the President say. Kelly called Sessions a second time to tell him the President had rejected his request for a delay.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.

Whitaker at DOJ

Whitaker and Sessions didn't have a prior relationship before Sessions -- at the urging of the White House -- accepted Whitaker as his chief of staff. Sessions interviewed him and the two grew to have a good working relationship. Sessions liked him, but even if he didn't, the plan was already hatched for him to take the role, according to one source familiar with the matter.

Leonard Leo, the influential executive vice president of the Federalist Society, recommended to then-White House counsel Don McGahn that Whitaker would make a good chief of staff for Sessions.

"I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons," Leo said Friday.

"Jeff Sessions needed a reliable conservative, a strong manager, and someone who had credibility who had previously served the department," he added. "Whitaker was a very good former US attorney and is a very good manager. He's a no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of guy."

Whitaker, a 49-year-old former U.S. attorney from Iowa and former CNN contributor, is a gregarious imposing presence that fits his former life as college football tight end. His Twitter feed, which he made private in recent days, shows a picture of him weightlifting, a passion he complains he doesn't get as much time to enjoy these days.

On Thursday, his first full day as acting attorney general, and with criticism of his appointment beginning to swirl, he tried to exude a calm demeanor. He convened a late afternoon meeting with senior department officials. He kept remarks brief, saying he was proud to lead them, that they've been doing good work and to keep doing what they're doing. Another call, also brief, with US attorneys around the country followed.

On Friday, he sent his first department-wide message, thanking Sessions for his service and extolling the work of colleagues around the country. "As we move forward, I am committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans," Whitaker wrote.

Sessions' last day

The ignominious end to Sessions' tenure is a far cry from the early days of the 2016 campaign, when he became an eager surrogate. Sessions' hardline views on immigration became suffused in the rhetoric that Trump adopted.

Sessions was the first US senator to endorse Trump at a time when establishment Republicans were still staying away, and he left his safe Alabama Senate seat to take the attorney general job.

Several members of his staff also joined the President's team, helping to craft some of the harsh immigration policies that Sessions often preached from Capitol Hill and which have become a cornerstone of stump speeches that Trump regularly uses to excite his political base.

But months into the job, Trump had soured on Sessions for the sin of recusing himself from the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections and possible connections to the Trump campaign.

More recently, Sessions appeared at peace with the prospect of being ousted from office. He made a series of valedictory visits with law enforcement around the country, seeking to underline what he believes will be his legacy of strong support for law enforcement and efforts to reduce crime.

Sessions spent Election Day on Tuesday surrounded by what he loves: cops and sweets.

He visited the FBI's laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, where officials warmly greeted him and provided a briefing on their latest capabilities.

Over a plate of Milano cookies, he was an engaged questioner asking a scientist about DNA identification and how it has affected guilty pleas in court.

Later, when he arrived in the cafeteria for lunch, a room full of FBI personnel and local police officers training in the National Academy rose to their feet as he entered the room. He went around from table to table, shaking hands, posing for pictures -- soaking up the moment and capping it off with vanilla ice cream with sprinkles.

Roughly 24 hours later, he was out of a job.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 320174

Reported Deaths: 7390
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22294271
Hinds20755424
Harrison18450317
Rankin13923282
Jackson13733249
Madison10273225
Lee10063176
Jones8473167
Forrest7837153
Lauderdale7263242
Lowndes6523150
Lamar636288
Lafayette6314121
Washington5427138
Bolivar4841133
Panola4671110
Oktibbeha466398
Pearl River4606148
Marshall4574105
Warren4440121
Pontotoc425973
Monroe4162136
Union415877
Neshoba4065180
Lincoln4009113
Hancock387687
Leflore3516125
Tate342586
Sunflower339491
Pike3373111
Alcorn327474
Scott320374
Yazoo314571
Adams308486
Itawamba305178
Copiah299966
Coahoma299084
Simpson298689
Tippah292268
Prentiss284261
Leake272374
Marion271280
Covington267283
Wayne264842
Grenada264087
George252451
Newton249064
Tishomingo232369
Winston230282
Jasper222148
Attala215173
Chickasaw210659
Holmes190574
Stone188733
Clay187954
Tallahatchie180041
Clarke178980
Calhoun174232
Yalobusha167940
Smith164134
Walthall135447
Greene131834
Lawrence131224
Montgomery128643
Noxubee128034
Perry127538
Amite126342
Carroll122330
Webster115032
Jefferson Davis108334
Tunica108127
Claiborne103130
Benton102325
Humphreys97533
Kemper96729
Franklin85023
Quitman82316
Choctaw79118
Wilkinson69632
Jefferson66328
Sharkey50917
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 549013

Reported Deaths: 11311
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson810461571
Mobile42145831
Madison35718525
Tuscaloosa26179458
Shelby25626254
Montgomery25089614
Baldwin21901314
Lee16287176
Calhoun14724327
Morgan14639285
Etowah14183364
Marshall12454230
Houston10791287
Elmore10301214
Limestone10188157
St. Clair10161251
Cullman9958201
Lauderdale9612250
DeKalb8977190
Talladega8462184
Walker7341280
Autauga7242113
Jackson6953113
Blount6950139
Colbert6415140
Coffee5638127
Dale4930116
Russell454941
Chilton4478116
Franklin431782
Covington4279122
Tallapoosa4144155
Escambia401880
Chambers3728124
Dallas3610158
Clarke353161
Marion3245107
Pike314578
Lawrence3134100
Winston283572
Bibb268564
Geneva258481
Marengo250665
Pickens237062
Barbour234559
Hale227178
Butler224671
Fayette218962
Henry194443
Randolph187644
Cherokee187345
Monroe180641
Washington170739
Macon163051
Clay160159
Crenshaw156357
Cleburne153644
Lamar146937
Lowndes142254
Wilcox126930
Bullock124542
Conecuh113630
Coosa111629
Perry108626
Sumter105832
Greene93634
Choctaw62125
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 74°
Columbus
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 72°
Oxford
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 70°
Starkville
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 84° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 72°
High pressure still tries to hang on to our area on Thursday, however a weak warm front will change the dominance of high pressure. This weak cold front will give us a chance for some isolated showers and thunderstorms at times.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather