Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out Wednesday after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump, who inserted in his place a Republican Party loyalist with authority to oversee the remainder of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The move has potentially ominous implications for special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe given that the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, until now Sessions’ chief of staff, has questioned the inquiry’s scope and spoke publicly before joining the Justice Department about ways an attorney general could theoretically stymie the probe.
Congressional Democrats, concerned about protecting Mueller, called on Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation in its final but potentially explosive stages.
That duty has belonged to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee who could chair the committee once the newly elected Democratic House majority is sworn in, said he wants “answers immediately” and “we will hold people accountable.”
The resignation, in a one-page letter to Trump, came one day after Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives and was the first of several expected post-midterm Cabinet and White House departures. Though Sessions was an early and prominent campaign backer of Trump, his departure letter lacked effusive praise for the president and made clear the resignation came “at your request.”
“Since the day I was honored to be sworn in as Attorney General of the United States, I came to work at the Department of Justice every day determined to do my duty and serve my country,” Sessions wrote.
The resignation was the culmination of a toxic relationship that frayed just weeks into Sessions’ tenure when he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because of his campaign work and following the revelation that he had met twice in 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Trump blamed the recusal for the appointment of Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation and began examining whether Trump’s hectoring of Sessions was part of a broader effort to obstruct the probe.
The investigation has so far produced 32 criminal charges and guilty pleas from four former Trump aides. But the work is not done, and critical decisions await that could shape the remainder of Trump’s presidency.
Mueller’s grand jury, for instance, has heard testimony for months about Trump confidant Roger Stone and what advance knowledge he might have had about Russian hacking of Democratic emails. Mueller’s team has also been pressing for an interview with Trump. And the department is expected at some point to receive a confidential report of Mueller’s findings, though it’s unclear how much will be made public.
Trump had repeatedly been talked out of firing Sessions until after the midterms, but he 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.
The president deflected questions about Sessions’ expected departure at a White House news conference Wednesday. He did not mention that White House chief of staff John Kelly had called Sessions beforehand to ask for his resignation. The undated letter was then sent to the White House.
The Justice Department did not directly answer whether Whitaker would assume control of Mueller’s investigation. Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Whitaker would be “in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice.”
Rosenstein remains at the department and could still be involved in oversight.
Without Sessions’ campaign or Russia entanglements, there is no legal reason Whitaker couldn’t immediately oversee the probe. And since Sessions technically resigned and wasn’t fired, he opened the door under federal law to allowing the president to choose his successor instead of simply elevating Rosenstein, said University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.
“Sessions did not do the thing he could have done to better protect Rosenstein, and through Rosenstein, the Mueller investigation,” Vladeck said.
That left Whitaker in charge, at least for now, though Democrats, including congressional leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, said he should recuse himself because of his comments on the probe.
Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney from Iowa who twice ran unsuccessfully for statewide office and founded a law firm with other Republican Party activists, once opined about a scenario in which Trump could fire Sessions and then appoint an acting attorney general who could stifle the funding of Mueller’s probe.
In that scenario, Mueller’s budget could be reduced “so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said during an interview with CNN in July 2017 before he joined the Justice Department.
In a 2017 CNN op-ed, Whitaker wrote, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.”
Trump’s relentless attacks on Sessions came even though the Alabama Republican was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump and despite the fact his crime-fighting agenda and priorities, particularly his hawkish immigration enforcement policies, largely mirrored the president’s.
He found satisfaction in being able to reverse Obama-era policies that conservatives say flouted the will of Congress, encouraging prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could and promoting more aggressive enforcement of federal marijuana law.
He also announced media leak crackdowns and tougher policies against opioids, and his Justice Department defended a since-abandoned administration policy that resulted in migrant parents being separated from their children at the border.
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 two months later after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey.
In piercing attacks, Trump called Sessions weak and beleaguered, complained that he wasn’t more aggressively pursuing allegations of corruption against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and called it “disgraceful” that Sessions wasn’t more serious in scrutinizing the origins of the Russia investigation for possible law enforcement bias—even though the attorney general did ask the Justice Department’s inspector general to examine those claims.
The broadsides escalated in recent months, with Trump telling an interviewer that Sessions “never had control” of the Justice Department.
Sessions endured most of the name-calling in silence, though he did issue two public statements defending the department, including one in which he said he would serve “with integrity and honor” for as long as he was in the job.
Sessions, who likely suspected his ouster was imminent, was spotted by reporters giving some of his grandchildren a tour of the White House over the weekend. He did not respond when asked why he was there.
Jim Grafft says he would sink at least $114,000 into fixing the decaying Monterey Hotel in the city’s downtown, according to his latest proposal to the city.
In a draft agreement signed and submitted to the city by Grafft on Oct. 30, Grafft outlines repairs he plans to the crumbling hotel. In documents filed with the agreement, Grafft gives timelines and cost estimates for some work the city requires under a raze or repair order. It includes up to $150,000 in roof repairs to the iconic, six-story hotel along with an engineering review of the building’s structural integrity.
That’s according to documents the Gazette obtained Wednesday through an open records request.
Not included in the documents is any estimate of what it would cost to shore up the building’s structural integrity. That presumably would be determined after an engineering analysis. City inspectors have said the building is at risk of collapse.
What’s not clear is whether Grafft’s proposal—the second he’s made to the city since mid-October—is enough to save the building from being torn down by the city.
City Building Director Tom Clippert, who’d determine the building’s fate, is not saying.
The Monterey has been under raze-or-repair orders by the city of Janesville since Sept. 10 for code violations and structural conditions city building inspectors and the Janesville Fire Department said in documents are deficient, dilapidated and unsafe.
Grafft on Oct. 10 turned in a proposal for repairs, but the city rejected it and sent it back.
In an Oct. 15 notice to Grafft, Clippert wrote that Grafft hadn’t supplied enough details on repairs the city requires to correct a state of deterioration that city inspections show has brought the building to the brink of the city tearing it down.
Grafft faced a new deadline of Oct. 31 to hand in a proposal with more details on timelines and costs, as well as assurances he can bankroll repairs the city requires.
Among other requirements, the city is ordering Grafft fix the hotel’s failing roof and its deteriorated structural and architectural components, including bad brick and broken windows and supports that bear the building’s weight.
Last week, Clippert told The Gazette that Grafft’s second submission of plans was “more substantial” than the first, but Clippert said he would need time to review the new plans before he knew whether they met the city’s requirements.
On Wednesday, Clippert would not say whether Grafft’s new plans are sufficient.
“I will say that we’re putting a response together,” Clippert said.
Clippert said the city’s response would be sent to Grafft, likely by the end of the week, but he was unwilling to give further details.
According to documents obtained by The Gazette, Grafft has signed the agreement.
Clippert has not.
Grafft’s latest proposal lays out timelines for some repairs the city said are necessary, and it includes estimates from contractors who might do the repairs—including two bids for roof repairs that range between $100,000 and $150,000, and bids totaling about $14,000 for brick tuck pointing and repairs to broken windows.
Grafft provided the city with a letter from a local bank indicating Grafft’s company, Certified Parts, has “adequate funds available ... for their use up to $250,000.”
Contractors could tackle the roofing by early in 2019, according to Grafft’s proposal, but Grafft said the roofing project’s timing hinges on a separate item, an analysis of the Monterey Hotel’s internal structural supports and joists.
The structural state of the hotel is an item the city is adamant about Grafft addressing.
City inspections showed water damage from a leaking roof has left building supports vulnerable and has put the building at potential risk of partial or total collapse, according to the raze-or-repair notice.
Grafft said in the new proposal that he plans an engineering analysis in mid-November. Engineers would check “slabs and structural joists” that support the building’s first floor and write a study on the building’s structural condition.
Grafft’s proposal doesn’t lay out any specific plans for the scope—or potential costs—of any repairs that might be needed to structural supports.
The repair agreement lays out details that reflect some information in Grafft’s plans, and it gives Grafft six months to make repairs the city requires.
According to the agreement, if the city accepts Grafft’s proposal but Grafft didn’t meet deadlines for progress on repairs, the city could revoke the agreement and raze the hotel.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, beloved by Republicans for pushing through a conservative revolution but so reviled by liberals that they tried to recall him from office, warned for months that he was at risk of being overwhelmed by Democratic anger.
He was right.
The tide that swept him out Tuesday stalled a political career that radically transformed the purple state and helped bring about President Donald Trump’s narrow victory there in 2016. For nearly eight years, Walker delighted conservatives and frustrated liberal opponents who could never figure out the right recipe to knock him off. At one point, he was seen as a potential presidential front-runner.
Trump’s entrance into the 2016 race forced Walker out. And distaste over Trump’s first two years as president contributed to depressed Republican turnout, and massive Democratic votes, in key parts of Wisconsin, leading to Walker’s narrow 31,000-vote loss to state education chief Tony Evers.
Republicans who worked with Walker for years as he rose from the state Assembly to Milwaukee County executive and then governor in 2010 were in shock, still trying to process the loss. It was Walker’s first defeat since 1990, at the age of 22. He won his first race for state Assembly in 2003 and never lost another election until Tuesday.
Walker conceded the race Wednesday. Evers’ margin of victory stood just above the 1 percentage point threshold that would allow Walker to seek a recount.
As governor, Walker transformed the state Republican Party into a powerful get-out-the vote machine that consolidated GOP power. He raked in donations from across the country while building his own personal brand.
He was part of the “Cheesehead Revolution” that included Rep. Paul Ryan’s rise to House speaker and Reince Priebus’ leadership of the Republican National Committee before briefly working as Trump’s chief of staff.
“As much as the left hates Scott Walker and showed it with passion on election night, Republicans across the state love Scott Walker,” said Brandon Scholz, a Walker ally and former state GOP director. “He’s been a leader. He’s been a friend. He’s been a champion. He has crisscrossed the state for every event he could possibly be at.”
Walker’s longtime opponents, including a core group who sang protest songs daily in the rotunda of the state Capitol, could barely contain their glee. They danced, hugged, cried and beat on drums for an hour Wednesday, holding signs that said things like “There is a god.”
Keith Steffen joined with dozens others to sing “This Land is Your Land” and other songs with lyrics altered to target Walker.
“I just was hoping it would have come a lot sooner,” he said.
Walker blew into office as part of a red wave in the 2010 election, with Republicans capturing control of the state Legislature at the same time. Together they enacted a host of conservative reforms, chiefly taking away nearly all collective bargaining power from teachers and other public workers as part of a fight in 2011 that put Wisconsin at the forefront of a new war over union rights.
That battle that drew protests as large as 100,000 people spurred the 2012 recall, which Walker won. It raised his national profile and laid the groundwork for his presidential bid. Along the way, Walker signed laws making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, enacting a 20-week abortion ban, passing a concealed-carry law and scaling back a host of environmental regulations that businesses opposed.
Evers seemed like an unlikely hero for liberal Walker opponents. Casting himself as a moderate, the 67-year-old cancer survivor faced criticism that he was too old and too boring to take down the left’s biggest target. But Evers embraced his milquetoast personality and argued that more civility and less hostility was exactly what voters wanted in the age of Trump.
The former teacher didn’t promise a complete repeal of everything Walker enacted. Instead, he focused on protecting insurance guarantees for people with pre-existing health conditions, increasing spending on education and improving the state’s roads.
But doing anything with a Republican-controlled Legislature that enacted Walker’s agenda will be difficult, if not impossible.
Evers’ supporters know he faces a tough road ahead. But to people such as 81-year-old Dave Knutzen, who is among those who have sung every day in the Capitol for more than seven years, all that matters is that Walker is gone.
“It took a long time,” Knutzen said. “I kind of gave up after a while.”
Knutzen attributed Walker’s defeat to voter anger with Trump.
“I think he energized a whole bunch of people, including women and young people,” Knutzen said of the president. “We got the turnout we needed.”
Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher who died in October, returned to his faith in the closing days of the race. On Election Day, he tweeted a Bible verse, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” And the day after his loss, he tweeted a psalm: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
One of Walker’s most outspoken liberal opponents, Jeff Simpson, tweeted in response: “AMEN ... we are rejoicing.”
Local Democratic lawmakers were optimistic Wednesday that Tony Evers’ election as governor would pave the way for bipartisanship in state government even as Republicans strengthened their grip on the Legislature.
The narrow gubernatorial race wasn’t called by The Associated Press until after 1 a.m. Wednesday, and two-term Gov. Scott Walker didn’t concede until later that afternoon. But the projected blue wave that helped elect Evers wasn’t enough to flip seats in the state Legislature to Democrats.
Still, area Democrats believed a divided state government could actually lead to less gridlock.
“It should lead to the very best kind of government where ideological things are left in the dust and we come to some sort of compromise,” said Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville. “That would be ideal. If anything’s going to be done, there will have to be some sort of compromise.”
This will be the first time since 2006 that one party has controlled both legislative chambers while the governor represented the other party. The GOP advantages in each house back then under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle were similar to the ones Republicans have now after grabbing a Senate seat and holding serve in the Assembly on Tuesday.
Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, said his past career as a history teacher showed him divided government can often lead to the strongest, most enduring laws because it forces the parties to work together.
Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said she was a little concerned the arrangement could lead to gridlock. But she called herself an “eternal optimist” who believes Evers will work collaboratively with Republicans.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, was also hopeful the two parties could find a consensus on issues such as transportation funding or health care coverage. But she said partisan bills were still likely to get introduced.
The Gazette was unable to reach for comment Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, or Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, the other two Republican legislators in the newspaper’s coverage area.
Some of the Democrats’ hopes for bipartisanship arose because Wisconsin governors have long had strong veto powers.
But Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that he was open to reducing those powers, casting doubt on visions of bipartisan bliss. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, also a Republican, said he would consider changes, though it wasn’t clear what changes lawmakers might pursue.
Any changes would come in a lame-duck session prior to Walker leaving office in January.
Loudenbeck had not heard about Vos’ proposal when contacted by The Gazette and declined to comment on the idea.
If veto powers remain intact, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said he hoped Republicans would not waste time introducing legislation with little to no chance of getting Evers’ signature. This would allow both parties to focus on finding common ground, he said.
Down the road, redistricting could be an issue on which lawmakers find common ground, though it could also inflame divisiveness. Spreitzer and Kolste both think a nonpartisan body should devise legislative district lines instead of the Legislature.
The next opportunity to redraw districts will come after the 2020 U.S. Census is finished. Evers will still be governor at that time; all 99 members of the Assembly and half of the state’s 33 senators will be up for election in November 2020.
Kolste said gerrymandering was a problem in Wisconsin considering Republicans were able to maintain their majorities despite a nearly even split in the vote for governor. Nonpartisan redistricting would likely balance the Legislature’s makeup to reflect Wisconsin’s status as a purple state.
That prospect could lead to deeper division between the parties, but it could be a long-term outcome of Democrats’ immediate hopes for bipartisanship in the wake of Evers’ win.
“If you have to come to a compromise to get things passed to the governor, I think that would be the best option,” Kolste said. “My concern is I often see it’s not about policy in governing and more about winning and gaining more power. Maybe in a divided Legislature, it will be more about governing and coming to compromise on policy issues. That is my hope.”
Gertrude K. Airis
Robert E. Arnold
Rolland “Rollie” Devlin
Bridgette “Bird” Clavey
Frederick C. Geske
Maynard H. “Milt” Mildorfer
Patricia A. Otto
Travis P. Prater