Jeff Sessions dumped as U.S. attorney general, replaced by Trump loyalist who panned Mueller probe

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resigned as the country's chief law enforcement officer after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks over having recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Matthew Whitaker, Sessions's chief of staff, to serve as acting AG

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, left, has been forced out as the country's top law enforcement officer and replaced by Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist and Sessions's chief of staff. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press; Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

U.S. 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 having recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Sessions announced his resignation in an undated one-page letter to President Donald Trump. He said the resignation came at "your request."

Trump announced in a tweet that he was naming Sessions's chief of staff, 49-year-old Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general. He said a permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.

Whitaker has previously criticized special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump election campaign and Russia.

Asked whether Whitaker would assume control over Mueller's investigation, Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Flores said Whitaker would be "in charge of all matters" under the purview of the department.

In a statement Wednesday, Whitaker said he is committed to "leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law and seeks justice for all Americans."

There was no announcement of a departure for deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller more than a year and a half ago and has overseen his work since then.

Previously panned Mueller probe

During a brief stint last year as a conservative legal commentator on CNN, Whitaker often appeared as a Trump defender and once opined about a situation in which the U.S. president could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller's probe.

"So I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt," Whitaker said during an interview with CNN in July 2017.

In an op-ed for CNN, Whitaker wrote: "Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing."

He also said Rosenstein should limit the scope of Mueller's investigation to stop him from delving into Trump's finances, warning that the probe would eventually look like a "political fishing expedition."

Toxic relationship

Hours before news of the resignation broke, when asked about Sessions's future as attorney general at a wide-ranging press conference, Trump ducked the question and said that, for the most part, he was extremely happy with his cabinet.

But Trump had repeatedly told confidants in recent weeks that he wanted Sessions out as soon as possible after the elections, according to a Republican close to the White House who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

Trump dodged questions about Sessions's future as attorney general during a news conference at the White House, which was held just hours before news broke of the resignation on Wednesday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

White House chief of staff John Kelly called Sessions before the president's news conference on Wednesday and asked for his resignation. Sessions's resignation letter was then sent to the White House.

Hours later, as more than 150 employees applauded, Sessions walked out of the Justice Department for the final time as attorney general.

The departure is the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into the attorney general's tumultuous tenure, when Sessions stepped aside from any investigation into potential collusion between the president's campaign and Russia.

Trump blamed that decision for opening the door to the appointment of Mueller, the former FBI director who took over the Russia investigation and has since been examining, among other things, whether Trump's hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct justice.

The relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact that his crime-fighting agenda and priorities — particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies — largely mirrored the president's.

Deputy U.S. attorney general Rod Rosenstein arrives at the White House following Sessions's resignation on Wednesday. (REUTERS)

But the relationship was irreparably damaged in March 2017 when Sessions, acknowledging previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and citing his work as a campaign aide, recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Trump repeatedly lamented that he would have never selected Sessions if he had known the attorney general would recuse himself. The recusal left the investigation in the hands of Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel two months later after Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey.

Democrats demand answers

Democrats demanded Wednesday that Trump guarantee the Mueller probe would be protected following Sessions's resignation, with the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee saying he wants "answers immediately."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, said he finds the timing of Sessions's departure "very suspect" and that it would spark a "constitutional crisis" if Trump had forced out Sessions as a "prelude" to ending or limiting Mueller's investigation.

Schumer also said Whitaker should recuse himself from oversight of the Russia probe for the duration of his tenure as acting attorney general, "given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation." 

In another tweet, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Congress to take "immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity" of the probe.

Sessions had been protected for much of his tenure by the support of Senate Republicans, including judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley, who had said he would not schedule a confirmation hearing for another attorney general if Trump fired him.

But that support began to fade, with Grassley suggesting over the summer that he might have time for a hearing after all.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another judiciary committee member who last year said there'd be "holy hell to pay" if Trump fired Sessions, called the relationship "dysfunctional" and said he thought the president had the right after the midterm to select a new attorney general.

With files from CBC News