U.S. President Donald Trump forced out the country's top law enforcement officer on Wednesday, a move Democrats warned could be a prelude to stopping the special counsel investigation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a resignation letter to Trump, said he was stepping down at the president's "request," suggesting he'd been pushed out of a job he'd refused to leave despite enduring a steady onslaught of presidential humiliations and insults over his recusal from the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump, in a pair of tweets, said the attorney general's chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, would take over as the Justice Department's acting head; thanked Sessions, whom he once called his "embattled attorney general"; and said a permanent replacement would be named later.
The firing of Sessions, 71, a former Republican senator from Alabama and an early supporter of and adviser to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, fueled Democratic fears that Trump may be maneuvering to shut down special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
Congressional probe urged
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee and a frequent Trump critic, urged Congress to investigate "the real reason" for the attorney general's "termination."
WATCH: Trump's Attorney General Forced to Resign
Cummings, in light of Whitaker's past vocal criticism of the Russia probe, also pushed Congress to "confirm" that Whitaker will recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
At a testy White House press conference earlier Wednesday, Trump said he could end the Mueller investigation "right now," but "I stay away from it ... I let it just go on."
Other Democratic leaders also urged Whitaker to give up oversight of the investigation.
"Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from its oversight for the duration of his time as acting attorney general," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, tweeted.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California fired off a similar tweet: "Given his record of threats to undermine & weaken the Russia investigation, Matthew Whitaker should recuse himself from any involvement in Mueller's investigation. Congress must take immediate action to protect the rule of law and integrity of the investigation. #FollowTheFacts."
In an opinion piece for CNN.com in July 2017, two months after Mueller's appointment, Whitaker took Mueller to task for what Whitaker saw as exceeding his mandate by investigating "non-Russian-related leads" as part of the probe.
Whitaker then urged Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the special counsel's investigation after Sessions’ recusal, to limit Mueller's mandate.
'In charge of all matters'
Asked whether Whitaker would take control of the Russia probe, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said, "The acting attorney general is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice."
Flores did not directly answer questions about whether Whitaker had consulted or planned to consult Justice Department ethics experts on whether he should recuse himself from the Russia probe.
"We're following regular order here," she wrote via email.
But John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor now with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, said he saw no reason for Whitaker to step aside from the Russia probe.
"He is the acting attorney general. He has no reason to recuse himself," Malcolm said.
Whitaker, a U.S. attorney during the administration of former President George W. Bush, joined the Justice Department as chief of staff and senior counselor in late 2017. It remains to be seen whether Trump will tap him for the job permanently and send his name to the Senate for confirmation.
Graham, whose name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the top Justice Department post, defended Sessions against Trump's criticism last year. But in recent months, as Trump's relationship with Sessions deteriorated, Graham said Trump was entitled to have an attorney general he could trust.
Sessions' departure capped a turbulent 20-month tenure at the helm of the Justice Department that got off to a rough start when he recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation in March 2017. He did so on the advice of Justice Department ethics officials, who said he should not be involved in the investigation of any presidential campaign of which he was a part.
The move led to the swift appointment of the special counsel, infuriating Trump, who repeatedly blamed Sessions for allowing a "witch hunt" to occur during his watch and refusing to defend him.
Sessions' refusal to politicize the investigation in the face of intense pressure from Trump won him plaudits even from his critics.
While steadfastly implementing the president's tough-on-crime and immigration agendas, Sessions grew increasingly isolated from Trump in recent months, to the point that Trump told an interviewer earlier this year, "I don't have an attorney general."