AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A big departure today from the Trump administration - Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called it quits. Sessions was one of President Trump's earliest political supporters, but their relationship soured soon after the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
That's right. We have heard Trump frequently attacking Sessions. Here's the president last August talking with Fox News.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He took the job, and then he said, I'm going to recuse myself. I said, what kind of a man is this?
KELLY: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: I mean, it is remarkable to listen back to President Trump's handpicked attorney general, one of his earliest supporters, and the constant barrage of insults that we have heard emanating from the White House toward Sessions for a long time now.
JOHNSON: Yes. He submitted his resignation under pressure from the White House today. DOJ says it was delivered to the Chief of Staff John Kelly this afternoon. Things got off to a bad footing very early on, almost as early as Sessions' confirmation hearing to become the attorney general. At that hearing, he announced he'd recuse himself from any investigation of President Trump's political opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Eventually, within a matter of months he recused himself from the Russia probe. To DOJ veterans, that issue was clear. Sessions campaigned with Trump, so he couldn't oversee any investigation into that Trump campaign. And the others on the shortlist to be Trump's attorney general, people like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, would have had the same problem, the same recusal problem. The president never saw it that way. He wanted an attorney general who would protect him, which is not the job of the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
KELLY: What has Jeff Sessions managed to accomplish as attorney general despite this rocky relationship with the president?
JOHNSON: A whole lot. In fact, ironically Jeff Sessions may have been the most successful Cabinet member in the Trump administration at advancing the Trump agenda. He...
KELLY: How so?
JOHNSON: He tried to overhaul the immigration courts, which the Justice Department oversees. He tried to place new limits on people seeking asylum. He ordered prosecutors to seek the most serious charges in prison sentences against drug criminals, which of course was a big reversal from the Obama years. His civil rights division brought some hate crimes charges, but it basically stopped major investigations into wrongdoing by entire police departments. In his resignation letter, Jeff Sessions took credit for new lows in violent crimes. But talking to scholars, they say crime was already near historic lows in the Obama years despite some upticks here and there.
KELLY: Now back to today's news. Not a huge surprise, as you note, for the president and Sessions to be parting ways. What kind of reaction are you hearing?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Sessions' former colleagues - Republican colleagues in the Senate, where he spent 20 years, have talked about his 40 years of dedicated public service. But the American Civil Liberties Union is out with a statement calling Jeff Sessions the worst attorney general in modern American history, citing his reversal on immigration policy, his repudiation of some LGBTQ protections. And Democrats in Congress have been alarmed for another reason. What does that mean for the Russia probe?
KELLY: Well, I was about to ask what might this mean for the Russia probe. I mean, that will depend in part on who President Trump decides he wants to replace Jeff Sessions.
JOHNSON: And that person for now is the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, who's been Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, not somebody who's gotten confirmed by the Senate. He is a former U.S. attorney in Iowa in the George W. Bush administration. And he's really gained the trust of the Trump White House. But for now, the Justice Department says it's Matt Whitaker who will supervise the special counsel probe, that he's in charge of all matters under the purview of the Justice Department.
That is controversial. Already we have people like Jerry Nadler, Democrat from New York, incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee - we think - starting next year, calling for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Jeff Sessions' departure as attorney general and saying basically Matt Whitaker should not supervise this probe because, as a CNN commentator before he joined the Trump administration, Matt Whitaker hypothesized about starving the resources to the special counsel's office.
KELLY: But real quick, will he - might he be a candidate for the permanent job?
JOHNSON: I don't think so at this point. The president has tweeted he intends to nominate someone else - we don't yet know who - for the permanent job.
KELLY: All right. Thanks, Carrie. NPR's Carrie Johnson.
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