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News Brief: Jeff Sessions, White House Shake-Up And Voting In Florida


How can the new acting attorney general affect the Russia investigation? Matthew Whitaker has been described as a Trump loyalist.


Whitaker will replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was fired. So now there's a lot of uncertainty over what's going to happen with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Remember; Robert Mueller is the special counsel. He's a former FBI director. He's widely respected. He has brought indictments, convictions and guilty pleas against many people with ties to the president, and Mueller wants to question the president himself.

INSKEEP: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now.

Hi there, Carrie.


INSKEEP: Would you just remind us of the mechanics of the Justice Department, which can be kind of important here? How does Whitaker end up being the guy who is supervising everything?

JOHNSON: Remember that Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, recused himself from the Russia probe on the grounds that he was affiliated with and was a big ally of the Trump campaign in 2016, which was under investigation by the special counsel. So the reasoning was he couldn't oversee the investigation. That left this whole matter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been supervising Mueller for over a year now.

But when the president finally decided it was time for Jeff Sessions to go, he leapfrogged over the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and has installed Jeff Sessions' former chief of staff Matt Whitaker in his place as the acting attorney general, the man to see when it comes to this Russia investigation.

INSKEEP: So this means that Robert Mueller, from time to time, has to go to Whitaker, who is his boss, and say, here's what I'm doing. You have any instructions for me?

JOHNSON: That's right - approval over budget issues, over indictments and over whether a final report by the special counsel will ultimately become public.

INSKEEP: Well, Whitaker has expressed some opinions about that special counsel investigation. I want to hear one. Last year, he was on CNN and suggested a way to end the investigation, it seemed.


MATTHEW WHITAKER: 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.

INSKEEP: OK. I could see a scenario where this happens, he says. Was he just talking, filling time on TV?

JOHNSON: Well, I guess we'll find out. Matt Whitaker also has a record of making other statements about this investigation, saying that there was nothing wrong with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey, which prompted the special counsel appointment in the first place. He also headed a political campaign of a man named Sam Clovis, who is described as Whitaker's friend. Sam Clovis is a witness in this Russia investigation.

There are some questions now about whether Matt Whitaker is going to take off his political opinion hat and put on the hat of the acting attorney general. He is a former U.S. attorney from Iowa in the George W. Bush administration, so he does have DOJ experience. But Democrats in particular are quite concerned about whether he's tipped his hand as to how he feels about this Mueller probe.

INSKEEP: Carrie, I want to take a moment to hear your thoughts about Jeff Sessions, the departing attorney general - departed attorney general - who you covered for a couple of years. This is a guy, I know, who was scorned by many Trump supporters for not seeming supportive enough of his president - which wasn't his job - but also scorned by people on the left because of the immigration and other policies that he backed. What are his friends and supporters saying of his two years as attorney general?

JOHNSON: A lot of supportive statements overnight, Steve, from Sessions' former colleagues in the Senate, where Jeff Sessions served for 20 years. They say he had a 40-year dedicated record of public service. He did a lot to crack down on immigration and asylum, which is one of Donald Trump's top priorities. And his heart was in the right place. He wanted to do the right thing, and that's why he recused himself from the Russia probe, which put him in the president's ill graces to begin with.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.


INSKEEP: OK, the firing of Sessions is one of several rapid-fire moves by the president.

KING: That's right. First, he held a news conference yesterday afternoon where he expressed bitter satisfaction at the defeat of many House Republicans. He said that some of them lost after failing to embrace him. He said that the lesson he learned from the election was, quote, "people like me."

Then, after that, the White House revoked the credentials of a CNN reporter. And in the midst of all of this, of course, the White House is up against a changed political landscape.

INSKEEP: Because Republicans lost the House and elections at many other levels on Tuesday. NPR's Scott Horsley covers the White House and is with us.

Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let me first ask about the change at the Department of Justice. Whitaker is a temp. He's the acting attorney general. How easy is it going to be for the president to have a replacement confirmed by the Senate?

HORSLEY: Well, certainly, the President's fellow Republicans had encouraged him not to make any changes at the Justice Department before the midterm election, but he may feel freer now to make changes with that election behind him. As a result of the polling on Tuesday, the president now has a larger friendly GOP majority in the Senate.


HORSLEY: And that's the team that would be responsible for confirming any replacement. Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, was asked yesterday about the confirmation process. This was before we knew that Sessions was on his way out. And he said that how controversial that process is would depend on who the president chooses for any new post. We have seen some lip service paid by Republicans and senators-elect - Republicans in the Senate and senators-elect - who say that the Mueller probe must be protected.

On the House side, where there will be a new Democratic majority, they, of course, won't play any role in confirming a successor, but they will have the power to investigate the process of Sessions' dismissal.

INSKEEP: OK. So there'll be a lot of news there. And that is just one Cabinet department. Are other changes expected in the administration after the midterm election here?

HORSLEY: It wouldn't be surprising to see more departures. The president said yesterday he is, for the most part, extremely happy with his Cabinet. Of course, that was just hours before we learned that Sessions was on his way out. The president did say he would be taking a look at some of the ethical complaints that had been lodged against his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke. Of course, ethics charges have already failed two other cabinet secretaries - Health Secretary Tom Price and the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt - even though in both cases, those men were very aggressive in carrying out the president's agenda, just as Zinke has been.

The president has also expressed some frustration with levels of illegal immigration, and that could put some heat on his homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. Trump stressed yesterday that it would not be unusual to see some members of the team taking a break at a time like this in the administration. And, of course, we've already seen unprecedented levels of turnover in this administration not quite 2 years old.

INSKEEP: Scott, the president can be seen as trying to reassert control yesterday, insisting that he won the election, or his side won, or that he was supported in the election, denouncing the media, getting rid of his attorney general. But is it clear, because of political realities - how Washington works, how the Constitution works - that the president is less in control of events today than he was a couple of days ago before the election?

HORSLEY: He will certainly face a more inquisitive party in the House of Representatives as a result of Tuesday.

INSKEEP: OK. Scott, thanks as always. That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.


INSKEEP: Florida was just one of many states to enact new criminal justice measures this week.

KING: Yeah. Voters there passed a constitutional amendment that's going to restore voting rights to more than a million convicted felons who have finished their sentences. Now, that means there could be more than a million potential new voters in the state of Florida.

INSKEEP: Wow. The electorate just got bigger in a very important state. NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now to talk about some key justice reform efforts.

Hey there, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: That is an amazing number, actually. A one - actually, something as high as 1 1/2 million people in Florida, right?

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it is. It's kind of incredible. I mean, the state's restrictive laws denied the vote to this very large group estimated to be 1.4 million in Florida. Convicted murderers and sex offenders, we should note, are still barred from voting under this amendment. But it's just a large group of ex-felons will now get to vote.

In fact, the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit, believes Florida's formerly incarcerated, Steve, make up close to one-quarter of the entire disenfranchised population in America. And on the ground in Florida, about 30 percent of those formerly incarcerated are African-American men and women, so that community was disproportionately affected.

So Tuesday's vote means, potentially, a big change, and one that was long in coming. Activists on the ground have been working to try to get this change for 20 years.

INSKEEP: And we don't know that all these people are going to want to vote or be that engaged in the system. But they're going to be there and can be targeted or reached out to by political campaigns on either side.

WESTERVELT: Well, that's right. I mean, you know, how this works is under the amendment, you know, those voting rights are scheduled to be restored in early January. But then, those estimated 1.4 million people will still need to get out to register and vote just like any other citizen. And we'll see, you know, how many register and under what party and how active they actually become.

INSKEEP: Let's move over to another state now because Louisiana had a ballot measure that passed that also affects the criminal justice system. This ended the practice of allowing non-unanimous juries to convict defendants by a majority vote, more or less. How does that fit into the broader national picture?

WESTERVELT: Well, it is really part, Steve, of a broader picture. And grassroots activists in Florida and Louisiana, you know, really sort of led the efforts on the ground. These were - many of them were previously, you know, incarcerated. And they're really, I think, Steve, trying to change the conversation about mass incarceration in America and asking, you know, how long should a sentence really last?

They're saying, you know, if we, as a nation, are going to take the rehabilitation part of prison seriously, we got to do more to reduce the prison population, they say, and help those getting out readjust, you know, to life on the outside. Getting out, you know, they face big barriers in housing, voting, education and finding jobs.

I'd like to take a listen to one of those activists who was formerly incarcerated. This is Jay Jordan. He did 14 years for armed robbery. He now directs the Second Chances program with Californians for Safety and Justice in Los Angeles.

JAY JORDAN: You know, if someone was 19 and they committed a crime and now, you know, they're 40 or 50 years old and still can't improve their economic situation because of an old conviction 30 years ago, is that OK? Is that something that makes sense?

WESTERVELT: So, Steve, activists such as Jordan are hoping this bigger conversation about the formerly incarcerated, you know, gains traction in more states in elections ahead.

INSKEEP: Remarkable that people who are directly affected by this - who have lived it - are the people who seem to be leading the way.

WESTERVELT: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.