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Politics & Government

Where Sessions' Resignation Leaves The Russia Investigation


Attorney General Jeff Sessions is out. As is often the case with personnel changes in the Trump administration, word came on Twitter. Shortly before 3 p.m., the president tweeted, quote, "we are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new acting attorney general of the United States." Then, in a later tweet, President Trump thanked Sessions for his service and wished him well. OK. NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing, joins me now. Hey, Phil.


CHANG: We have not heard much about the Mueller investigation in recent weeks, likely because of the midterm elections. But now that those are over, where does this investigation stand?

EWING: Yeah. You're right. It's been quiet since around Labor Day, but there have been some expectations recently with the passage of the election that things could start to heat back up again. His work is clearly unfinished, and there's even speculation that he may target a few more people with criminal charges. Now, the special counsel's office doesn't talk. We haven't seen or heard from Mueller since he took this job.

CHANG: Sure.

EWING: So a lot of this is induction from what people have said. But one example is the political consultant, Roger Stone. He's been telling nearly anyone who'll listen, including our colleague Tim Mak here at NPR, that he expects an indictment. It's also possible based on a lot of discussion that there could be charges against Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, which released embarrassing material against targets in the 2016 election that came from the Russian government. And there could be others. There could also be some kind of final report or some statement from Mueller. And then the question becomes will that be public? Mueller's required to submit something like that to his bosses, but there's no rule that says it has to get out in the open.

CHANG: All right. So what does Sessions' resigning today ultimately mean for the whole investigation?

EWING: Well, one thing, it means Mueller has a different boss. He had been appointed to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed him. That's because Sessions recused himself. He didn't think he should be involved with investigating a campaign of which he had been apart. And now that the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, is in charge, he is not recused, and he will be taking over from what we understand. Now, Whitaker's been pretty skeptical about Mueller's investigation in the past, and so that could complicate matters - at very least, it could be kind of awkward in the room with these two men inside the Justice Department, although we're still learning more about what exactly this will mean.

CHANG: OK. So I imagine that there are all kinds of ways a new attorney general could get in the way of this investigation without actually firing special counsel Robert Mueller.

EWING: Yeah, that is true. The president had a press conference at the White House today in which he said he didn't intend to fire the special counsel. He could if he wanted to, but he hasn't, basically, for political reasons. At the same time, the new acting attorney general could defund the special counsel's office. He could decline to authorize investigative techniques and make Mueller's life and the life of his investigators very difficult.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Phil Ewing. Thanks so much, Phil.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.