On Feb. 9, the same day current Attorney General Jeff Sessions was sworn into office, Donald Trump quietly signed an executive order that effectively changed the line of succession within the Department of Justice, laying out who will succeed Sessions in the event he dies, resigns or otherwise becomes incapacitated.
Trump’s order was a reversal of one signed a month prior by then-president Barack Obama. A week before leaving office, Obama authorized Executive Order 13762, “Providing an Order of Succession Within the Department of Justice.” That order inexplicably removed Obama appointee Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, from the DOJ line of succession. As USA Today reports, at the time Obama offered no justification for why he removed an attorney he appointed from the order of succession within the DOJ.
Fast-forward to Jan. 30, less than two weeks after Trump took office, when the president dramatically fired Obama holdover Sally Yates as Acting Attorney General after she refused to defend Trump’s controversial (and ultimately futile) immigration ban. As Sessions had yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Trump was able to elevate whomever he pleased to take Yates’ place.
If Boente’s name sounds familiar, that’s not surprising. In the wake of Yates’ ouster, Trump asked Boente to serve as Acting AG. The Virginia attorney was officially named Acting Attorney General on Feb. 9, the same day Sessions was sworn into office—and the same day Trump signed the executive order reversing Obama’s line of succession.
On Thursday, Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any investigation into Russia’s involvement with the 2016 presidential election, after the Washington Post reported that he failed to disclose multiple meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearing. As Politico’s Eric Geller reports, Boente will now take over “any election-related investigations.”
News of Boente’s elevated role in the investigation comes after a New York Times report published Wednesday revealed that in the waning days of the Obama administration, the White House scrambled to disseminate information about Russia’s efforts to undermine the election, as well as potential ties between Trump associates and Russian officials. According to the Times, the Obama administration’s goal was two-fold: to make sure Russia never interfered in that capacity again, and to present a clear trail of evidence for investigators.
Though officials told the Times that “none of the efforts were directed by” the former president, it reflects an unease the prior administration harbored regarding a possible connection between Moscow and Trump.
In December, Obama ordered a full assessment of Russian influence in the 2016 election. The 17 agencies and offices that comprise the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in an effort to help elect Trump. The full extent of Russia’s interference—and the Trump campaign’s potential involvement—is currently under investigation; as the story continues to unfold, one thing is clear: Despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, there is a “there” there.