President Donald Trump on Wednesday forced out Attorney General Jeff Sessions a day after congressional elections, and vowed to fight if the U.S. House of Representatives’ new Democratic majority launches probes into his administration.
Sessions, an early supporter of Trump who ran afoul with him by recusing himself from a investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, said in a letter to the president he had submitted his resignation “at your request.”
Sessions’ departure was the first in what could be a string of high-profile exits as Trump reshapes his team to gird for his own 2020 re-election effort. Trump named Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting attorney general and said he would nominate someone for the job soon.
During a combative news conference in which he tangled with reporters, Trump trumpeted his role in Republican gains in Tuesday’s midterm congressional elections, and warned he would adopt a “warlike posture” if Democrats investigated him.
Democrats will now head House committees that can probe the president’s tax returns, which he has refused to turn over, possible business conflicts of interest and any links between his 2016 campaign and Russia, a matter being investigated by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mueller is overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who reports to Sessions.
Trump said he could fire Mueller if he wanted but was hesitant to take that step. “I could fire everybody right now, but I don’t want to stop it, because politically I don’t like stopping it,” he said.
Moscow denies meddling and Trump, calling the Mueller probe a witch hunt, denies any collusion.
Trump was buoyed on Wednesday by victories that added to the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, telling reporters at the White House that the gains outweighed the Democrats’ takeover of the House. He added that he was willing to work with Democrats on key priorities but felt any House investigations of his administration would hurt prospects for bipartisanship.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better,” Trump said of the possibility of Democratic investigations. “All you’re going to do is end up in back and forth and back and forth, and two years is going to go up and we won’t have done a thing.”
The divided power in Congress combined with Trump’s expansive view of executive power could herald even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock in Washington.
There may be some room, however, for Trump and Democrats to work together on issues with bipartisan support such as a package to improve infrastructure, protections against prescription drug price increases and in the push to rebalance trade with China.
“It really could be a beautiful bipartisan situation,” Trump said.
He said Nancy Pelosi, who could be the next speaker of the House, had expressed to him in a phone call a desire to work together. With Democrats mulling whether to stick with Pelosi, who was speaker when the party last controlled the House, or go in a new direction, Trump wrote in a tweet earlier that she deserves to be chosen for the position.
Pelosi, at a news conference on Capitol Hill, said Democrats would be willing to work with Trump where possible, but added, “We have a constitutional responsibility to have oversight.”
“I don’t think we’ll have any scattershot freelancing in terms of this. We will have a responsibility to honor our oversight responsibilities and that’s the path we will go down. We again (will) try to unify our country,” she said.
The Democrats fell short of a tidal wave of voter support that would have won them control of both chambers of Congress. But in the 435-member House, the party was headed for a gain of around 30 seats, beyond the 23 they needed to claim their first majority in eight years.
A Senate majority would have allowed Democrats to apply even firmer brakes on Trump’s policy agenda and given them the ability to block any future Supreme Court nominees.
House Democrats could force Trump to scale back his legislative ambitions, possibly dooming his promises to fund a border wall with Mexico and pass a second major tax-cut package. Legislators could also demand more transparency from Trump as he negotiates new trade deals with Japan and the European Union.
“Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans; it’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration,” Pelosi told supporters at a victory party Tuesday night.
Trump also mocked Republican candidates who had refused to back his policies and ultimately lost their races, such as U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia.
“They did very poorly. I’m not sure that I should be happy or sad but I feel just fine about it,” he said.
Every seat in the House was up for grabs on Tuesday and opinion polls had pointed to the Democratic gains. The party with the presidency often loses House seats in midterm elections.
The Republicans had an advantage in Senate races because elections were held for only 35 seats in the 100-member chamber and many of them were in states that often lean Republican.
Republicans built on their slim Senate majority by several seats and ousted at least three incumbent Democrats: Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
In Florida, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson was trailing his Republican rival, Governor Rick Scott, by a slim margin, with the possibility of a recount looming. Republican Martha McSally was leading Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the U.S. Senate race in Arizona with some votes still to be counted.
The Republican gains are sure to bolster the party’s efforts to get conservative federal judges through confirmation proceedings. In the 36 gubernatorial contests, Democrats won in several states that supported Trump in 2016 but lost high-profile races in Florida and Ohio. (Reuters)