The politics of Jeff Sessions' resignation

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," November 7, 2018. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department. He took the job, and then he said I'm going to recuse myself. The only reason I gave him the job because I felt loyalty.

TRUMP: I was disappointed that he recused himself, and many people think I was right on that.

LESLEY STAHL, CBS NEWS: Can I assume he's gone?

TRUMP: No. No, you can't assume that.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: He's been frustrated about my recusal and other matters, but we have been so pleased and honored to be given the responsibility to execute his agenda.

TRUMP: I'm very happy with most of my Cabinet. We are looking at different people for different positions. I didn't want to do anything before the midterms.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: But after the midterms, about an hour after the news conference, actually, the news came out that Jeff Sessions is no longer going to be attorney general, leaving today in the resignation letter, saying, quote, "At your request, I am submitting my resignation. I have been honored to serve as attorney general and have worked to implement the law enforcement agenda based on the rule of law that formed a central part of your campaign for presidency. Thank you for the opportunity."

And then leaving, he had a moment outside the Justice Department in which he shook hands with the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, who is the chief of staff for Jeff Sessions. And that choice is getting a lot of attention.

Let's bring in our panel: Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen; Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for National Public Radio, and Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist. OK, Marc.

MARC THIESSEN, WASHINGTON POST: So I think the president of the United States is learning from his mistakes. If he had done this with James Comey after the 2016 election, there would be no molar probe today. The reality is that the president of the United States, it's absolutely normal after an election for the president of the United States to reshuffle his cabinet, to ask some people to leave and other people to come. When I was in the White House in 2004, President Bush waited until after the election for Donald Rumsfeld to replace him.

BAIER: Which he did the day after the midterms.

THIESSEN: Which he did the day after the midterms. So this is a normal process.

If he had waited to do this and then all of a sudden some development came with the Mueller probe or some controversy with the Justice Department, then people would start speculating about whether this was -- we would be into conspiracy theories about obstruction of justice. Here it's just very clear the election has changed and he's moving on. It's a smart move.

BAIER: A lot of people are asking what has happened to the possibility of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was at the White House today, shouldn't he then assume the top spot? I asked Trey Gowdy about that earlier in the show.


REP. TREY GOWDY, R-S.C.: He is alleged to have wanted to vote the 25th amendment and question the president's fitness for office, so I'm not sure that would've been the right pick. But he is overseeing the Mueller probe right now. I don't think anything is going to happen to Rod until after Mueller finishes his investigation, and then what happens after that will be between the president and Rod.


BAIER: Mara?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: That's the big question, what happens to the Mueller probe, and that's why people are all up in arms, especially Democrats, because Rod Rosenstein now oversees the Mueller probe. But if the attorney general is not recused, whoever replaces him can take that.

BAIER: Right, in fact DOJ said later in the afternoon, with Whitaker coming in who has not obviously recused himself, he will now oversee --

LIASSON: He will have that responsibility. Then the question is what does he do? In the past he has spoken about ways that you can kind of starve the probe, deprive it of funds so it de facto shuts down. He's talked about how there should be a redline looking into the president's finances, that would be a bridge too far. So Democrats want to protect the Mueller investigation, they don't want it shut down, and that's going to be the next big controversy.

BAIER: We should point out that Bob Mueller, everything we know, is that he's staying, coloring within the lines. He passed off the finance stuff to the southern district of New York, and we just don't know when he's coming forward. You mentioned Matt Whitaker talking about that. Here's a sound bite when he was commenting.


MATT WHITAKER, ACTING U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Those govern the budget of the special counsel, and that is well within the purview of the attorney general. 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 the budget so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.


BAIER: So Democrats are asking, is he that acting attorney general?

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, THE FEDERALIST: And this is a really interesting thing that might be worth doing -- we haven't had a lot of accountability for the special counsel. We don't even know what the actual limits of the special counsel probe are because that memo that Rosenstein revised has not been made public. The American people actually don't know much about what's going on there and it would be great to finally have someone who actually can oversee this.

Jeff Sessions is a fine and honorable man, and that honor was used against him by people who believe in this Russia conspiracy theory to get him to recuse himself. And he didn't need to do that, and he was way too naive to believe that that was even a reasonable thing to do. Americans believe that law enforcement agencies and police forces shouldn't be rogue, that they should have civilian accountability over them, and it's good to have someone in place who can do that.

BAIER: And Gowdy also said it's possible that Whitaker is the person that's the impetus for another special counsel looking at the FBI in the early stages of the Russia probe. It seems like you're getting to the end of this, but who knows?

THIESSEN: It's one day after the midterms and we are already back into whittling this down into more special counsels and more controversy. This is generally the pivot where we've got to be right now, which is we've now got a Democratic majority in the House. There's a chance for some bipartisanship on both sides. Are we going to go down the rathole of having all the expanding probes and more special counsels, more controversy, or are we going to try to see whether the two sides can actually work together and do what the American people said they wanted them to do, which is to unite and try and get some things done.

BAIER: To that point, Jerry Nadler tweeting out "Americans must have answers immediately as to the reasoning behind the president removing Jeff Sessions from the Justice Department. Why is the president making this change and who has the authority over the special counsel Mueller's investigation? We will be holding people accountable."

And Mollie, you think that he will be holding people accountable?

HEMINGWAY: Yes, I happen to ride the train down from New York to D.C., and Jerry Nadler in my presence talked with a friend about how Democrats now taking over Congress plan to do investigations leading to potential impeachment for Justice Kavanaugh and that they are all in on the Russia investigation. So you might wish that Democrats would actually work on legislation instead of continuing on some of these endless probes, but the executive branch needs to be smart about this and they need to not be as naive as they were at the beginning of the administration.

BAIER: You always have to go with the quiet car. As a lawmaker I think the quiet car is the way to go.

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