Robert S. Mueller III, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, is sworn in before testifying before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, April 14, 2004 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. U.S. (Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News)

Game of Thrones: Trump Dumps Sessions and Mueller Might Be Next

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- By forcing Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of the White House, President Donald Trump has made the Justice Department more beholden to him and left Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his probe of possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia more firmly in Trump’s crosshairs.

News of Sessions’s defenestration, as these things do in Washington’s low-rent version of “Game of Thrones,” arrived via the president’s Twitter feed:

Sessions’s departure was a long time coming. Trump has openly disparaged Sessions ever since the former attorney general decided to recuse himself last year from direct oversight of the Russia probe and allowed Mueller — a veteran federal prosecutor known for his independence and integrity — to be inserted atop the investigation by his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.

Again, we refer you to Twitter:

Trump has decided to replace Sessions with Matthew Whitaker, who was named acting attorney general. Whitaker prepared for his new role as one of the nation’s most senior law enforcement officials, in part, by serving as Sessions’s chief of staff. Prior to that, Whitaker had been the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa from 2004 to 2009, practiced law, made a failed bid for a Senate seat in 2014, worked briefly as a legal commentator for CNN, and then, from 2014 to last year, was the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a conservative watchdog group.

In the service of accountability and civic trust, Whitaker noted in a column for CNN on Aug. 6, 2017, that he thought Mueller’s probe — then only about three months old — was “going too far.” Whitaker said he believed, based on his own experience as a prosecutor, that Mueller “has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing.” He argued that Mueller had journeyed beyond the original mandate of the investigation, which he interpreted to be narrowly about collusion. Sessions appointed Whitaker as his chief of staff about six weeks later.

So no, Whitaker is unlikely to line up as a supporter of Mueller’s ongoing probe. But Mueller had been in danger long before this. Trump considered firing him during the summer of 2017, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, and I have argued in the past that I thought if Trump had to choose between his own (or his children’s) survival and executing Mueller, he would certainly opt for survival.

Trump has the power to fire Rosenstein if Rosenstein doesn't obey the president’s request to lance Mueller. That would allow the dominoes to begin falling: Trump (perhaps in conjunction with Whitaker or simply acting through him) could then get rid of Mueller and any other Mueller loyalist within the senior ranks of the Justice Department.

Although there's disagreement among legal scholars about how forcefully the president can proceed toward a full-scale purge, his words and actions since he entered the Oval Office last year indicate that he feels he’s empowered to do whatever he feels he needs to do. That’s just the way things go in Westeros.

The reality of this, fantasy fiction aside, is grave. The president, who is the nation’s top law enforcement official, has routinely shown little respect for the independence of bedrock institutions (such as the courts and the Justice Department) that ensure the rule of law in the U.S. Tilting at Mueller is bound to set up a showdown among the three branches of the federal government, and sides will have to be taken.

Mueller entered the scene on May 17, 2017, after Trump had fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s then-director, James Comey, during the Russia probe’s earlier innings. Comey has alleged that Trump requested that he drop an FBI investigation of the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Mueller later indicted Flynn.

Although Whitaker has argued that Mueller has somehow gone rogue in his investigation, the special counsel was granted a broad investigative mandate. In addition to collusion, he has also been looking into possible obstruction of justice by the Trump camp as well as the Trump Organization’s business dealings — all of which is well within his mandate. Trump, and his proxy, Whitaker, simply don’t like the mandate, much as they don’t like Mueller.

The midterm elections concluded Tuesday and Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, with all of its investigative muscle. That will enable Democrats to reinforce Mueller’s probe, which Trump has no doubt seen coming long before today. Now he’s revealed his hand, putting the majesty and integrity of the presidency — along with the nation’s long-standing respect for the separation of federal powers — on the line.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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