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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigns at White House request, after months under fire by Trump

© Mandel Ngan, AFP | File photo taken in March 2017 of Jeff Sessions.

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2018-11-08

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned Wednesday as the country's chief law enforcement officer after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks over his recusal from the Russia investigation.

Sessions announced his resignation in a letter to President Donald Trump. He said the resignation came at "your request."

Trump announced in a separate tweet that he was naming Sessions' Chief of Staff Matthew Whitaker, a former US attorney from Iowa, as acting attorney general.

The resignation was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into the attorney general's tumultuous tenure, when he stepped aside from the investigation into links between the president's campaign and Russia.

Never in modern history has a president attacked a Cabinet member as frequently and harshly in public as Trump did Sessions, 71, who had been one of the first members of Congress to back his presidential campaign in 2015.

Trump blamed the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Trump's hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct justice and stymie the probe, on the now former attorney general.

Sessions leaves as Mueller, operating under the auspices of the Justice Department, pursues a wide-ranging Russia investigation that has already yielded a series of criminal charges against several of Trump's associates and has dogged his presidency.

Trump loyalist turns acting attorney general

Under normal circumstances, the US deputy attorney general takes on the role of acting attorney general until a replacement is found. But Trump has publicly complained about the current deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

A Trump loyalist who drew close to the US president after Sessions recused himself from control of the Russia investigation, Whitaker has served as “a balm” on the troubled relationship between Trump and the Justice Department, reported the New York Times, quoting an unnamed White House official.

In an opinion piece written for CNN in August 2017 while serving as a commentator for the network, Whitaker said Mueller would be crossing a line if he investigated the Trump family's finances.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who could be the next speaker, said in a statement posted to Twitter that Sessions' ouster was a "blatant attempt" to undermine the Russia probe. She urged Whitaker, who now oversees Mueller, to recuse himself from any involvement as Sessions had done.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer repeated that call "given [Whitaker's] previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations" on the Mueller probe.

Republicans had repeatedly urged Trump not to oust Sessions, a conservative Republican former senator from Alabama, before the elections lest it create political fallout.

FRANCE 24's Philip Crowther reports from Washington DC

They also argued that Sessions should be allowed a graceful exit after he doggedly carried out Trump's agenda on illegal immigration and other administration priorities.

Relationship sours shortly after inauguration

Trump was only a few weeks into his presidency in March 2017 when Sessions upset him. Rejecting White House entreaties not to do so, Sessions stepped aside from overseeing the FBI’s Russia collusion probe.

Sessions cited news reports of previously undisclosed meetings he had with Russia's ambassador to Washington as his reason for recusal.

Rosenstein then took over supervision of the Russia investigation and in May 2017 appointed Mueller as the Justice Department's special counsel to take over the FBI's Russia probe after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

A permanent replacement for Sessions must be confirmed by the US Senate, which Trump's Republicans will continue to control as a result of Tuesday's midterm elections.

Mueller is pursuing an in-depth investigation into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia, whether Trump unlawfully tried to obstruct the probe, and financial misconduct by Trump's family and associates. Mueller has brought charges against Trump's former campaign chairman and other campaign figures, as well as against 25 Russians and three firms accused of meddling in the campaign to help Trump win.

Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Russia.

‘Dumb Southerner’

Trump publicly seethed over Sessions' recusal and said he regretted appointing him. On Twitter he blasted Sessions as "VERY weak" and urged him to stop the Russia investigation. In July 2017 he told the New York Times that if he had known Sessions would recuse himself, he never would have appointed him attorney general.

Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward wrote in his book "Fear" that Trump, talking to a White House secretary, disparaged Sessions as "mentally retarded" and a "dumb Southerner" while mocking his accent.

There were news reports in the weeks after Mueller's appointment that Sessions had offered to resign. Sessions usually remained quiet about Trump's criticism, but defended himself in February 2018 after a Trump tweet criticising his job performance by saying he would perform his duties "with integrity and honor."

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2018-11-07

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