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Mueller has new boss who has openly criticised his Russian probe

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Mr Whitaker will be acting attorney-general until Mr Trump nominates someone who would need Senate confirmation.

Washington

SPECIAL Counsel Robert Mueller is answering to a new boss, Matthew Whitaker, who has openly criticised his Russia investigation - and has the power to constrain it or end it, just as President Donald Trump wishes.

Mr Trump never forgave Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing the probe that Mr Mueller now runs, and the president delivered on that long-festering frustration a day after the midterm elections were over.

He forced Mr Sessions to resign and named Mr Whitaker, a former US attorney whose criticisms of Mr Mueller have echoed the president's, as acting attorney-general until Mr Trump nominates someone who would need Senate confirmation.

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Mr Whitaker, who became Mr Sessions's chief of staff last year, has left a paper trail of his views on Mr Mueller's inquiry.

In July 2017, Mr Whitaker said during an interview on CNN that he could envision a scenario in which an acting attorney-general doesn't fire Mr Mueller but "just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grind to almost a halt".

The next month, Mr Whitaker wrote an opinion article posted on CNN's website arguing that Mr Mueller's investigation appeared to be going too far and may constitute a "witch hunt", embracing one of Mr Trump's favourite descriptions to discredit the probe.

Citing reports that Mr Mueller was looking into Mr Trump's finances and those of his family, Mr Whitaker wrote: "If he were to continue to investigate the financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel's investigation was a mere witch hunt."

There was no indication that Mr Whitaker intended to follow Mr Sessions's lead and recuse himself from the Russia investigation, despite Democratic demands that he do so. That means he will supplant Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr Mueller and has defended his performance, in overseeing the inquiry.

"Protecting Mueller and his investigation is paramount," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, citing Mr Whitaker's "previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation". Senator Susan Collins of Maine was one of the several Republicans who publicly expressed concern about what may happen. "Special Counsel Mueller must be allowed to complete his work without interference - regardless of who is AG," she said in a tweet without mentioning Mr Whitaker by name.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said he was certain that Mr Mueller's probe will be allowed to "continue to its end" because the Senate won't confirm a new attorney-general otherwise.

Mr Whitaker, in a Justice Department statement released on Wednesday evening, said: "I am committed to leading a fair department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans." He added that it had "been a privilege" to work under Mr Sessions.

The shake-up at the Justice Department comes at a crucial point, as Mr Mueller is seeking to wind down parts of his inquiry and deliver some key findings, according to two officials familiar with his plans. As Mr Mueller's supervisor, Mr Whitaker would decide whether those findings remain secret, are shared with congressional committees, or released to the public.

But there's no sign that the special counsel is ready to close up shop anytime soon - unless he's forced to do so.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who will likely be the panel's chairman when his party takes over the House next year, said on Wednesday that interference with the investigation "would cause a constitutional crisis". Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican critic of Mr Trump, urged Senate action on long-stalled legislation intended to safeguard Mr Mueller's inquiry.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued in the past that there was no need for such measures because Mr Mueller wasn't at risk of being ousted. He didn't comment on that prospect on Wednesday. BLOOMBERG