167 years and one day after Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederate States of America, his namesake, Jeff Sessions, is out as head of the United States Justice Department.
In a letter to White House chief of staff John Kelly, embattled U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III announced his resignation today, “upon [President Trump’s] request” effective immediately. His departure comes after a long, contentious tour of duty that frequently saw him on the business end of the president’s social media rants.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of the investigation? Why didn’t Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2018
As he is wont to do, the president announced the change on Twitter, nominating Matthew G. Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, as acting AG. Trump says he will choose a replacement at a later time.
The move is sudden but not entirely unexpected. Sessions’ checkered relationship with the Commander-in-Chief aside, staff changes in the executive branch aren’t uncommon after a midterm election, especially one in which the balance of power shifts significantly.
Like most things Trump does, the media will now scramble to interpret and analyze Sessions’ departure from every possible angle. From where we sit, the AG’s exit leaves three big questions:
1. What does this mean for federal cannabis policy?
As a senator, Sessions was labeled, “the single most outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization in the U.S. Senate.” He called cannabis a “very real danger” and expressed disappointment with President Obama’s loosening of federal enforcement of cannabis laws. It would be hard for Whitaker, or anyone who isn’t described as a “drug war dinosaur,” to hold more negative views of cannabis than Sessions.
Does his firing clear the way for a more liberal federal policy towards the plant? Trump has previously hinted at changing national laws, telling reporters in June that he “probably will end up supporting that, yes” when asked about a bipartisan bill introduced earlier this year that would leave cannabis policy entirely up to the states.
Just days ago, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, best known for calling Reince Priebus a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” during a bombastic 10-day stint as White House Communications Director, predicted that Trump would support legalizing cannabis soon after the midterms.
“I do. I think he’s going to legalize marijuana,” the Mooch said.
Yesterday’s election saw the 10th most populous state in the nation legalize recreational cannabis and two other historically conservative states approve medical programs. Is there a chance that Trump may finally drag the GOP into the 21st century on cannabis policy, now that the man who once said cannabis was “only slightly less awful” than heroin is gone?
2. What does this mean for the Special Counsel’s Russian Collusion investigation?
One of the reasons Trump lashed out so frequently at the AG was his decision to recuse himself from matters relating to DOJ special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” the president told The New York Times in July 2017. He repeated the argument to reporters in April, saying “The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this.”
At the time, Sessions was trying to do the right thing by keeping his personal bias out of the special counsel investigation. Since then, of course, Republican discourse about the investigation has shifted dramatically.
Since his appointment in May of 2017, the big fear of Democrats – and those who don’t particularly like fascism – is that president Trump would move to insulate himself from the special counsel by firing Sessions and appointing someone more willing to interfere with Mueller’s work. So far, the investigation has brought 191 criminal charges against 32 individuals. Some analysts speculate that he has even bigger bombshells coming soon, now that the elections are over.
With the first half of this nightmare scenario having played out yesterday, the focus now turns to acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Quartz did a great job of summing up Whitaker’s public comments on the investigation, which range from showing respect to Mueller’s job to claiming that there is no basis for an obstruction case.
It’s still impossible to predict what, if any action Whitaker will take regarding Russia. Even if Whitaker leaves the status quo, his replacement may not be so willing.
Is the firing of Sessions a pre-emptive defensive maneuver by Trump, who is facing the threat of expanded investigations now that Democrats have taken the House? He and his congressional flunky-in-chief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have both made thinly-veiled threats about the potential consequences should Democrats choose to tighten legislative reigns on Trump, with McConnell calling it “presidential harassment.”
But perhaps there’s a simpler answer: Trump saw the midterm result as an opportunity to get rid of a man he has described as “beleaguered” and reportedly calls “Mr. Magoo” in private.
3. How will Democrats respond?
Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive Speaker of the House after Democrats take control in January, wasted little time calling for Whitaker to recuse himself after Sessions announced his resignation. Other top Democrats like Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), echoed her warning soon after.
Democrats are now forced into a political balancing act. Do they take a hard line on the issue and go after the Justice Department, possibly with legislation to protect Mueller or subpoenas? Or will the new majority in the House choose to wait and see what happens, saving political capital on one of the many other investigations they’ve promised, from taxes to emoluments to abuse of power by cabinet members?
It’s a fine line they’ll have to walk – too much pressure on Trump and the Dems run the risk of being portrayed as an opposition party with no strategy beyond antagonizing the president at every step. But if they fail to hold the administration sufficiently accountable, they risk angering a base that seems to move more to the left every day.
Only time will tell how things play out. As usual, there is one petulant, moody demagogue who will undoubtedly be at the center of new developments.