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by RC, IndivisibleSB Staff Writer

What exactly is an Attorney General?

The United States Attorney General (AG) is a member of the president’s Cabinet of close advisors, most of whom are termed “Secretaries” of departments.

  • The AG heads the Department of Justice (DOJ) including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
  • While State AGs are typically elected to specific terms of office, the Federal AG is appointed by the President with the advice and consent (confirmation) of the Senate. The AG remains in office until removed by the President.
  • The AG is both the chief law enforcement officer and chief lawyer for the US government. Subordinate to the AG is the Deputy AG and the Associate AG, both requiring Senate confirmation.


What’s the Recent History of Attorneys General?

The office of the AG has been particularly active during the Trump administration. Incoming presidents usually vet their Cabinet nominees in advance so the required Senate confirmation process begins immediately after the president’s inauguration.

  • The Trump administration was unprepared for the thorough and deliberative, i.e., long, confirmation process. It asked President Obama’s Deputy AGSally Yates – to stay on (1/20/17) as Acting AG during the new confirmation process. While in that office Yates deemed Trump’s early Executive Order banning Muslim immigrants to be unlawful (if not unconstitutional) and ordered her staff not to enforce it. Angered by Yates’ independent legal analysis, Trump fired her after only 10 days (1/30/17).
  • Yates was replaced by Dana Boente, who had been US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia (one of 93 official United States Attorneys in the country; they are Justice Department employees and serve at the president’s pleasure. Trump eventually dismissed almost all of them without naming replacements). Boente served as Acting AG for another 10 days before the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for the post (2/9/17).


What is the current lineup of Attorneys General?

  • Jefferson Beauregard (Jeff) Sessions is Trump’s AG but is, himself, entangled in possible election campaign collusion between Trump staff or surrogates and Russian officials. For this reason he has recused himself from participation in any government investigation into Russian election meddling.
  • The Deputy AG Rod J. Rosenstein (pronounced “Rosenstine”) now handles responsibilities in those inquiries that would normally require action or response from the AG. Whenever Rosenstein acts for Sessions on a Russia-related matter, he does so as the Acting AG.

Worth noting: Rosenstein named Robert Mueller (pronounced “Muller”) to be Special Counsel in matters relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election (5/17/17). Mueller has been hiring staff attorneys and conducting his investigation. Because his office is authorized to bring criminal charges, Congressional investigations (which are entirely public fact-finding) generally defer to the Special Counsel and avoid conflicts that might impede that office’s work.


What was the Watergate era “Saturday Night Massacre”?

  • In 1973 the AG under Richard Nixon appointed an independent special prosecutor to investigate the break-in at the Watergate Hotel offices of the Democratic National Committee. (Note: the authorities of the current Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, are slightly different than the earlier independent special prosecutor, but functionally similar.)
  • The special prosecutor subpoenaed Nixon for copies of Oval Office audiotapes. The president offered a compromise but, when the special prosecutor declined, Nixon ordered the AG to fire the special prosecutor. The AG refused and resigned his office on a Saturday, making the Deputy AG the temporary Acting AG. Nixon ordered that Acting AG to fire the special prosecutor, too. The Acting AG also refused and also resigned the same day.
  • With the AG and Deputy AG gone, Nixon ordered the special prosecutor to be fired by the Solicitor General, who complied. The process was complete by that evening of October 20, which led to the term “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Worth noting: If Deputy AG Rosenstein were to step down or be removed, his initial replacement would be the Associate AG, Rachel Brand.