WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday after a yearlong public shaming campaign that raised questions about whether the president improperly interfered with the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Trump, who requested Sessions' resignation, named Matthew Whitaker to serve as interim attorney general. Whitaker was Sessions' chief of staff and had been considered for a variety of jobs in the Trump administration, including the No. 2 post at Justice or as White House counsel.
In his new role, Whitaker also will oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, prompting fears among Democratic lawmakers that Trump was seeking to derail the inquiry as it nears an end.
"Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as attorney general of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country," Sessions said in a seven-paragraph letter. "I have done so to the best of my ability to support the fundamental legal processes that are the foundation of justice."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had been overseeing Mueller's investigation until Whitaker's appointment, was at the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a meeting, though he remained in his job. He was among those in an entourage of Justice leaders who accompanied Sessions as he exited the department for the last time Wednesday night.
An emotional Sessions clasped hands with Rosenstein and Whitaker, waved at a hastily gathered crowd in the department's courtyard, then climbed in the backseat of a black SUV with his security detail for the ride home.
In a statement later Wednesday, Whitaker called his appointment a "true honor."
"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 said.
He described Sessions as "a dedicated public servant."
"It has been a privilege to work under his leadership," Whitaker said. "He is a man of integrity who has served this nation well.”
The departure of Sessions, one of Trump’s most vocal and earliest supporters during the 2016 campaign, was expected for weeks.
Laser-focused on Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Trump savaged him in interviews, tweets and news conferences as "beleaguered," often expressing "disappointment" in his attorney general.
In September, Trump took his criticism to a new level when he disassociated Sessions from the administration, including the attorney general's border enforcement efforts.
“I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” Trump said in an interview with Hill.TV. “I’m not happy at the border, I’m not happy with numerous things, not just this.”
The broadsides became even more pointed in recent weeks, when Trump described Sessions as "disgraceful" for asking the Justice Department's inspector general – not prosecutors – to review Republican allegations of surveillance abuses related to the monitoring of a former Trump campaign aide.
Sessions’ recusal in March 2017 for failing to disclose election-year meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – and Trump's dismissal of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 – prompted the appointment of Mueller, a former FBI director, as the Justice Department’s special counsel to direct the wide-ranging Russia inquiry.
Mueller’s appointment and the inquiry's expansion to include a deep examination of the Trump family’s finances and possible obstruction of justice stoked the president’s attacks on the attorney general.
"I think you have to ask the question of who benefits from Sessions’ removal," said Jimmy Gurule, who was an assistant attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. "And the answer is President Trump."
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, credited Sessions with “maintaining unusual equanimity and dignity under fire” while dutifully carrying out Trump’s agenda on a range of issues, including immigration and violent crime enforcement.
"He’s done all this under enormous pressure, and we know what that is," Mukasey told USA TODAY, referring to unrelenting criticism from the president. "I can’t imagine how he’s been able to do this."
Mukasey, a Sessions confidant whose portrait hangs in the attorney general’s fifth-floor conference room, characterized the atmosphere created by Trump’s public attacks as akin to a “psychodrama.”
Rather than walk away in the face of Trump's attacks, Mukasey said, Sessions remained at the helm of the sprawling agency "for the welfare of the department."
"For him to have done that is incredible," Mukasey said.
In July 2017, Trump told The New York Times he would never have appointed the former Alabama senator had he known Sessions would disqualify himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
He repeated the line in a Rose Garden news conference the following week. "If he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office, and I would have, quite simply, picked somebody else," Trump said. "So I think that's a bad thing, not for the president but for the presidency."
The president called his own attorney general "beleaguered," slammed him for failing to investigate former political opponent Hillary Clinton and questioned the significance of his early loyalty during the campaign.
As tensions rose in the months after his recusal decision, Sessions offered the president his resignation, but it was not accepted.
Sessions’ actions were called into question after his contentious confirmation hearing in January 2017.
During questioning, Sessions failed to disclose at least two meetings with Kislyak in 2016 and a third encounter that the attorney general said he did not remember.
The meetings with Kislyak, first disclosed by The Washington Post, triggered Sessions’ decision to disqualify himself.
Sessions said he did not discuss campaign-related issues and Trump policy matters with the Russian ambassador. On July 21, the Post reported, based on U.S. intercepts of Kislyak’s contacts with Moscow, that the ambassador said Sessions engaged in substantial discussions of campaign-related and policy issues.
Sessions has not publicly addressed the report.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, called for Sessions to testify before the committee about the contents of the report.
Republicans rallied to Sessions’ side in the wake of Trump's early rebukes.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the attorney general’s loyalty to the president was unwavering, having stood by candidate Trump even when audio recordings emerged in October 2016 of Trump's crude recounting of his treatment of women.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sessions was “central’’ to pushing the Trump campaign’s conservative agenda.
Cracks in that bedrock of support appeared as early as January when House Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio called for the attorney general to step down. The congressmen, citing Sessions' recusal from the Russia inquiry, asserted that the attorney general could no longer adequately manage the department and the FBI. Gingrich and Grassley more recently signaled that their support for Sessions was waning.
This year, another former Senate colleague and supporter, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared the Trump-Sessions relationship as "beyond repair," fueling speculation that Graham might be in line for the job. He denied any interest in the post.
The criticism came even as Sessions aggressively pursued the staunchly conservative agenda Trump outlined on the campaign trail.
He called attention to spikes in violent crime; ordered a sweeping review of police agreements that punished troubled agencies; rolled back a series of Obama-era civil rights actions, including a Justice Department challenge to a controversial voter identification law in Texas; and threatened so-called sanctuary cities for harboring undocumented immigrants. In January, the attorney general paved the way for tougher marijuana enforcement when he rescinded the previous administration's policy of noninterference with state laws allowing the use of medical and recreational pot.
Sessions pushed the president’s immigration enforcement policy – the centerpiece of Trump’s successful campaign.
Announcing a new set of requirements for cities to maintain eligibility for millions in federal grants, Sessions said jurisdictions would have to provide federal immigration authorities access to all detention centers to determine the status of suspected undocumented immigrants.
The crackdown drew the ire of immigration and human rights advocates but brought plaudits from his conservative colleagues.
"I have total confidence in the attorney general," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in September.