Donald Trump has fired Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and also handed oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election hacking to a political staffer who has previously called for Mr. Mueller to be reined in.
The move came mere hours after the U.S. President warned the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives not to launch new investigations into him, threatening to retaliate by starting investigations of his own into Democratic legislators and refusing to work with them on legislation.
The developments, a day after the Democrats captured a House majority in the midterm elections, set the stage for a confrontation between the newly empowered opposition party and a President determined to keep a lid on probes of his administration and business empire.
They also cast doubt on early signals that the two parties could try to work together on an infrastructure-building plan and efforts to improve the health-care system. Democratic members of Congress called for immediate hearings on Mr. Sessions’ firing and a law protecting Mr. Mueller.
The President also escalated his attacks on the media Wednesday, revoking the credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and barring him from the White House after Mr. Acosta asked Mr. Trump about the Russia investigation and his immigration policy.
The Democrats are expected to use their majority in the lower chamber to start or expand investigations of Mr. Trump, with his murky financial dealings, tax returns and accusations of collusion between his circle and the Kremlin during the 2016 election all possible areas of inquiry.
In a combative White House news conference, the President said he would get Senate Republicans to investigate unspecified Democrats for supposed leaks of classified information, without providing evidence that the party has done this, if the Democrats investigate him in the House. Legislative committees have the power to subpoena witnesses and requisition documents.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate, and a lot of very questionable things were done,” he said, adding that in such a scenario, he would also refuse to strike any deals with the Democrats to move legislation forward: “You can’t do them simultaneously … if they’re doing that, we’re not doing the other.”
Shortly after, Mr. Sessions issued a resignation that he said had been demanded by the President. Mr. Trump installed Matthew Whitaker, Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff, as acting attorney-general. The appointment included transferring supervision of Mr. Mueller from Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein to Mr. Whitaker. Mr. Trump did not say when he would nominate a permanent attorney-general, who would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. Sessions was a Trump loyalist and one of the first high-profile politicians to endorse his presidential bid. As attorney-general, he was a major player on the President’s hard-line immigration agenda, helping implement a contentious policy that led to unauthorized immigrants at the Mexican border being separated from their children.
But Mr. Sessions earned the President’s ire in March, 2017, when he recused himself from overseeing investigations into Russian hacking and gave the responsibility to Mr. Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller.
The special counsel is trying to determine whether Mr. Trump’s circle colluded with the Kremlin and whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI director James Comey. His investigators have also reportedly delved into Mr. Trump’s business dealings, a famously opaque area that includes bankruptcies and accusations of minimizing tax payments and dealings with organized crime.
For more than a year, Mr. Trump regularly derided his own attorney-general in public, labelling him “weak” on Twitter and rhetorically asking “what kind of a man is this?” in a Fox interview. But Mr. Sessions refused to fire back.
In an August, 2017, op-ed for CNN, Mr. Whitaker called on Mr. Mueller not to investigate Mr. Trump’s businesses. He said such topics were outside the special counsel’s purview to expose Russian election hacking.
“The Trump Organization’s business dealings are plainly not within the scope of the investigation, nor should they be,” wrote Mr. Whitaker, a former prosecutor, describing such inquiries as a “witch hunt” and “fishing expedition.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Congress to immediately protect Mr. Mueller.
“It is impossible to read attorney-general Sessions’ firing as anything other than another blatant attempt by Donald Trump to undermine and end special counsel Mueller’s investigation,” she wrote on Twitter. “Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation.”
Congress could pass a law forbidding Mr. Mueller’s firing or making such a move difficult. Senators tried such a move earlier this year, but Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell would not allow a vote on it.
It could also try to remove Mr. Trump from office if it deems he has obstructed justice by curbing Mr. Mueller. Such a move would be unlikely to succeed, but even initiating impeachment proceedings in the House could tie up the Trump administration for months.
In letters late Wednesday and early Thursday, Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee called on the Trump administration to preserve records related to Mr. Sessions’s ouster and Republican chairman Bob Goodlatte to immediately call a hearing to investigate the matter. They also wrote to Mr. Whitaker demanding he turn oversight of Mr. Mueller back to Mr. Rosenstein, describing a “potential constitutional crisis” if the Special Counsel’s investigation is curbed.
The new House will not be sworn in until January, meaning it will be up to Republicans for the next two months whether any action is taken on Mr. Sessions or Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Whitaker could take numerous steps to curtail Mr. Mueller’s investigation, legal experts said. He could give him a direct order, or do something more subtle such as limit his funding or other resources.
“There are all sorts of ways to influence what can happen,” said Jennifer Daskal, a law professor at American University in Washington.
Whether such interference is seen as permissible is likely to be a political question, said Saikrishna Prakash, a constitutional law expert at the University of Virginia. “Some people will think that will be obstruction and some will think it’s just inappropriate,” he said.
Earlier in the day, both the President and Ms. Pelosi had said they were willing to work together.
Mr. Trump’s news conference, however, swiftly went off the rails as he mocked Republicans who had lost their House seats and shouted at journalists for asking him questions he did not like.
In one exchange with Mr. Acosta, the President repeatedly tried to shut him down, saying “that’s enough,” as the CNN reporter tried to ask about Russia.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Acosta was barred from the White House grounds and ordered to turn over his press pass when he arrived for a live hit.