President Trump talked recently with Jeff Sessions’s own chief of staff about replacing Sessions as attorney general, according to people briefed on the conversation, signaling that the president remains keenly interested in ousting his top law enforcement official.
The conversation between Trump and Matthew G. Whitaker was somewhat nebulous, the people said. It was not clear, for example, whether Whitaker would take over on an interim basis or be nominated in a more permanent capacity, or how definitive the president’s intentions were.
On a long list of indignities that Sessions has endured from his boss, Trump’s discussing replacing him with his own top aide stands out. Trump has wanted to fire Sessions ever since he recused himself from what is now the special counsel’s investigation into whether Russia coordinated with the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election. He has berated his attorney general publicly and privately, and recently told Hill.TV, “I don’t have an attorney general.”
Sessions, meanwhile, has dutifully sought to implement Trump’s agenda, even as it has become clear his relationship with the president is damaged beyond repair.
In the Trump administration, top officials at the Justice Department have learned to work as if every day could be their last. That has never been more true than in recent weeks. Late last month, the New York Times reported that memos kept by former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe alleged that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had more than a year ago suggested wearing a wire to monitor the president and using a constitutional amendment to oust him.
In the wake of that reporting, Rosenstein offered to resign and traveled to the White House expecting to be fired. The administration lined up Whitaker to replace Rosenstein in an acting capacity, while Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, would take over supervision of the special counsel probe. The conversation about Whitaker taking over as attorney general occurred around that time, according to people briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Even the plan for Whitaker to fill the Justice Department’s No. 2 post was scrapped, though, and Trump has said in recent days he does not want to remove Rosenstein. Rosenstein has generically disputed the Times report, and his defenders have said his comments about the wire were not meant to be taken seriously.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
White House officials now say that they expect both Rosenstein and Sessions to stay in their jobs until the midterm elections, as any move against them before then could be damaging to Republicans in close races. After that, though, the Justice Department expects the two men at the top will be replaced in short order. It is unclear whether Whitaker will be a part of those plans.
Even as Trump has fumed about Sessions, he has seemed to take a liking to the attorney general’s chief of staff. Whitaker is a former University of Iowa football player who looks the part. He served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 to 2009, and ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in 2014. Before coming to the Justice Department to serve as Sessions’s chief of staff last year, he did TV commentary and directed the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.
In September 2017, he wrote a column for CNN saying that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — who CNN had reported at the time could be looking into Trump and his associates’ financial ties to Russia — had “come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.” If made the attorney general, Whitaker would possibly be in a position to supervise Mueller, but ethics officials would probably review his past public comments to see if he had any conflicts of interest.