Attorney General Jeff Sessions (center), joined by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (left) and Jessie Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in Washington, Oct. 15. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Opinion writer

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s forced resignation, all eyes are now on his temporary replacement, Matthew G. Whitaker, who had been serving as Sessions’s chief of staff. The Post reports:

A Justice Department official said Whitaker would assume authority over the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — though his role could be reviewed by ethics officials. Because Sessions was recused, the special counsel probe had been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who also has had strained relations with Trump, but is considered safe in his position for the moment. Rosenstein was headed to the White House Wednesday afternoon for what an official said was a pre-scheduled meeting.

Though Sessions’s removal was long expected, the installation of Whitaker sparked fears that the president might be trying to exert control over the special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III.

There is good reason to demand his recusal. In July 2017, Whitaker speculated on CNN that he “could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment,” or that the attorney general doesn’t fire  Mueller but reduces his budget so much that his investigation grinds to almost a halt. He also suggested Rosenstein could be leaned on to cut off funding.

More substantively, this is one step worse than Trump picking a Supreme Court justice (Brett M. Kavanaugh) to rule on cases affecting him. Here, he’s in essence picking the overseer of an investigation into him and his cronies. Ethics guru Norman L. Eisen tells me, “If ever there was an appearance of impropriety, this is it. . . . We have a criminal subject president appointing his own prosecutor — one who has evidently prejudged the case.” He comments, “This stinks to high heavens. No prosecutor — or indeed governmental official of any kind — should work on a matter under these circumstances. Whitaker must step aside. This is just as odious, in its own way, as Sessions’s conflict was, maybe more so.”

Democrats are already raising many of the same concerns. “I am deeply concerned that President Trump, both in forcing Attorney General Sessions’s resignation, and effectively stripping Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of his authority to supervise the Mueller investigation, is now in position to easily interfere with or even end the Mueller investigation,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “That is a red line which President Trump has been warned not to cross by Republicans and Democrats alike for months.”

Coons continued, “The president and Mr. Whitaker must demonstrate that the Mueller investigation will continue under its current leadership and supervision unimpeded. Given his previous comments about the investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from oversight of the special counsel investigation during his tenure as acting attorney general.”

He warned that attempts to muzzle or influence the special counsel would amount to “an historic attack on the rule of law, and the beginning of a crisis the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate.” He urged passage of legislation to protect the special counsel.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who will chair the House Oversight Committee, was blunt. “Congress must now investigate the real reason for this termination, confirm that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is recused from all aspects of the Special Counsel’s probe, and ensure that the Department of Justice safeguards the integrity of the Mueller investigation,” he said in a written statement.

Democrats in Congress (let’s stop expecting Republicans to behave responsibly) should act decisively. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe counsels, “This rule-of-law crisis has been a slow-motion train wreck for a long time. Matt Whitaker is on record about the ways to clip Mueller’s wings and the alleged need to do so. And I suspect that too few ordinary people will care that this Wednesday afternoon massacre has quietly taken place.”

There is good reason, then, for Democrats to demand immediate hearings and to demand that any ruling on the matter by DOJ ethics counsel be released forthwith.

Read more:

Trump freaks out after the election and ousts Sessions

What do the midterms say about 2020?