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With the elections behind him, Trump starts cleaning house

Analysis: The president said the only reason he wasn't firing everyone was the potential political fallout. The post-midterms question is whether those constraints still apply.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions attend a panel discussion on  opioid and drug abuse at the White House on March 29, 2017.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions attend a panel discussion on opioid and drug abuse at the White House on March 29, 2017.Shawn Thew / Getty Images file

In forcing out Attorney General Jeff Sessions Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump may have signaled the beginning of the end of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

Trump had heeded the concerns of Republicans who worried that firing Sessions before Tuesday's midterm elections could spark a backlash among voters if they perceived him to be somehow obstructing justice.

Now, with those elections just hours behind him and Sessions already out of the way, Trump's new acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, will have authority over Mueller's purse strings, the parameters of his investigation, the timeline for the conclusion of his work and even his personal job security.

"The acting attorney general is in charge of all matters under the purview of the Department of Justice,” agency spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.

But Washington insiders say it's unlikely Trump or his appointees will go so far as to sack Mueller — because they don't have to.

Matt Schlapp, a close ally of the president and chairman of the American Conservative Union, said it makes sense for the Justice Department to end the probe sooner rather than later, and that there's no need to fire Mueller to get that done.

"It’s perfectly appropriate for DOJ to decide to close down the investigation, because we just had a nationwide campaign in every corner of America where the Russia collusion theme was not brought up by Democrats," Schlapp said. "If they decide to essentially end his work, he’s still going to be able to testify on the Hill. They can’t keep him quiet. You don’t accomplish a whole heck of a lot more in terminating him."

But Sessions' departure, which the president announced on Twitter after declining to do so during a nearly 90-minute press conference earlier in the day, is just the first in what administration observers expect will be a series of changes to Trump's Cabinet and White House lineup in the coming weeks.

As eager as he is to put any aspersions about Russian interference in the 2016 election behind him as he gears up for his 2020 re-election bid, Trump is equally eager to rid himself of lieutenants he perceives as disloyal, incompetent or simply misplaced in his administration.

The president frequently speaks disdainfully of members of his team, and he has mused openly about the possible departure of some, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

"He may leave," Trump said on CBS's "60 Minutes" last month.

In the same interview, he said Mattis wasn't well informed on the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"I think I know more about it than he does," the president said.

Closer in than his Cabinet, Trump is expected to make changes on his White House staff. His chief of staff, John Kelly, has been perpetually rumored to be on the chopping block almost since he took the job last year. On Wednesday, Trump declined to address a question as to whether his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, would soon be on her way out.

"He did the right thing in ending this tortured public relationship with Jeff Sessions, and it would be normal for an administration at this point, heading into an election, to make sure that they rethink the entire team," Schlapp said. "Look for more changes to come."

Still, few moves were poised to cause as much of a stir in Washington as the long-expected firing of Sessions, an archconservative on policy who has become a symbol for liberals because his recusal on Russia-related matters had prevented him from interfering with Mueller's work.

On Wednesday, Democrats threatened to hold Trump accountable if the Justice Department short-circuits Mueller's probe.

"Donald Trump may think he has the power to hire and fire whomever he pleases, but he cannot take such action if it is determined that it is for the purposes of subverting the rule of law and obstructing justice," said New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who will be taking over as chairman of the Judiciary Committee in January. "If he abuses his office in such a fashion, then there will be consequences."

Some Republicans also expressed concern about the situation.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who did not seek re-election, said on Twitter that he wants the Senate to vote on legislation designed to protect the Mueller probe from political interference, while Sen. Susan Collins of Maine used the same medium to note her worry about defending the sanctity of the investigation.

From Trump's perspective, the only reason to hold off on a bloodbath at the Justice Department has been the potential political fallout.

"I could fire everybody right now, but I don’t want to stop it right now, because politically I don't want to stop it," he said just hours before he cashiered Sessions.

Now that the midterms are over and his party has lost control of the House, his political concerns move beyond voter backlash. For Trump, there's a new nightmare on the horizon: Hill opponents — with subpoena power.