EDITORIAL: Action needed now to protect Mueller probe

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, gestures while speaking as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, looks on during their joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had long been rumored to be on the post-election chopping block, so the announcement Wednesday that he had been forced out — finally — came as something less than a shock.

The timing, a little less so.

That President Donald Trump would wait less than 24 hours after the polls closed to offload his beleaguered AG was a reflection both of how eager he was to pull the trigger, and how incensed he was at the outcome of Tuesday’s elections.

The capture of the House by Democrats this week puts Trump in the crosshairs of legitimate political accountability for the first time in his presidency, and he seemed eager to deflect attention from that fact, which he did by demanding Sessions’ resignation.

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If Sessions has a shred of self-decency left, he should have been only too glad to submit it. After all, Trump has pilloried his hand-picked AG mercilessly for more than a year since the latter committed the mortal sin (in Trump’s eyes) or recusing himself from any investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible cooperation with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential elections.

Sessions’ recusal led to the hiring of special counselor Robert Mueller, which led to the largest cloud over Trump: An ongoing probe that has already generated scores of charges, as well as half a dozen guilty pleas from several close Trump associates, including his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen and short-tenured National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Which brings us to this week.

In forcing out Sessions, Trump did not name the agency’s second-in-command, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to assume his duties. Leapfrogging over Rosenstein was Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who now assumes oversight of the Mueller probe.

Unlike Rosenstein, who had been Mueller’s boss owing to Sessions’ recusal, Whitaker is not on record as a defender of the special counsel. Just the opposite, in fact. He has, in his past role as a political commentator, questioned the latitude of the probe and has said it should be constrained. He even described how that could be done financially, by squeezing or outright defunding Mueller’s office.

No surprise, then, that leading Democrats are calling for Whitaker to recuse himself from any role in the investigation. Fat chance of that. Trump is no Rhodes scholar, but he isn’t dumb enough to make the same mistake twice of appointing an AG (acting or otherwise) with recusal plans.

All of which is why the Senate needs to act — and quickly.

A bipartisan bill that would shield Mueller’s investigation has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and need only be called to the floor by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell, in the past, has said the Mueller probe should proceed to its conclusion but that he did not think it needed legislative protection because it was not threatened. That is no longer the case.

With the probe now under the auspices of an acting attorney general who is on record as hostile to its scope, if not its very existence, lawmakers cannot respond quickly enough.

McConnell, sitting on his two Supreme Court judges and his about-to-expand majority, must now act in the best interest of country rather than party.

If not, Democrats, weakened though they be, ought not to shy away from using upcoming budget negotiations to force the issue.

The American public needs to know how and to what extent Russian adversaries meddled in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. The Mueller probe has uncovered no small amount of malfeasance already. It must be allowed to continue to its conclusion, wherever that may lead.