According to several newspapers, e.g. this article, or even the (now former) Attorney General's resignation letter, President Trump asked Jeff Sessions to resign. Similar things are also shown in TV shows from time to time.

If I remember correctly, the President can fire any cabinet member. So why would he request Sessions to resign instead of just firing him?

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    A very interesting topic. While not an answer, you may find Wikipedia's article on the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson additional background. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment_of_Andrew_Johnson Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 3:48
  • While the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson is good background material, it should be added that the impeachment was not successful, and that the main pillar of the case Against the President, the Tenure of Office Act (1867), was repealed in its entirety in 1887. A similar issue with an 1876 law that prevented the dismissal of high employees of the post office was knock down by the supreme court in 1920 with the opinion (paraphrasing) that the president can dispose of any member of the executive branch as he wills Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 19:29

2 Answers 2


In addition to the niceties listed by another answer, this allows Trump to appoint a temporary replacement according to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998:

The Vacancies Act’s requirements are triggered if an officer serving in an advice and consent position in the executive branch “dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.”

The Vacancies Act: A Legal Overview

It's not clear that this would apply to a situation where he is fired. In the case where it doesn't, the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, would assume the acting role, which is probably not what Trump had in mind.

So it's pretty clear by getting his resignation he explicitly maintains the authority to pick his replacement. If he hadn't resigned, this almost certainly would have been challenged, as one government oversight writer says:

[T]he moral hazard created by allowing the president wide discretion to make an unreviewable temporary appointment to act in place of a Senate-confirmed official he fired is one good reason why this omission might have been intentional on Congress’s part. On the other hand, for most positions there is no mechanism to fill a vacancy temporarily other than the VRA, and it would be odd if there were no mechanism whatsoever to fill vacancies that result from a termination pending confirmation of a replacement.

If the Attorney General Is Fired, Who Acts as Attorney General?

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    This answer could be improved by mentioning that whether the Department of Justice’s specific succession statute can be supplanted by a presidential appointment under the FVRA is an open question, as discussed on lawfare. Certainly the resignation makes it muddier, but it is not at all clear cut that the FVRA can be used to appoint an acting attorney general (general statutes do not typically supercede specific statutes).
    – De Novo
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 4:48
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    @phoog It's not really spelled out in the text of the statute (see the last paragraph). People generally seem to think there's a decent argument that "dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office" doesn't include being fired. After all, a fired person is able to perform their duties; they've just been told not to. If Sessions had been fired, the applicability of the FVRA to a dismissal would have been another basis on which Whitaker's appointment could be challenged. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 8:54
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    Slate points out that a number of legal scholars argue that forcing someone to resign is generally treated as legally equivalent to firing them, so the FVRA might not apply.
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 16:38
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    @ZachLipton That seems like a somewhat silly argument to me. Once you're fired, you no longer have the authority to act which makes you unable to perform the functions and duties of the office. Being fired, quite literally, revokes your legal ability to perform the duties. I think the better argument is that the omission of being fired from that list was intentional and the clause, though it literally and logically does include firing, was not meant to. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 17:41
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    Isn't the point of the VRA that a president can't willfully fire someone and replace them without Senate advice and consent, whereas if they resign of their own will or are unable to perform their duties, the president can appoint someone to keep the gov't running? It seems pretty obvious isn't not supposed to apply to firings. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 19:08

It's pretty customary to let someone resign rather than fire in government (or any senior leadership role, really). Even if we suppose that the reason he was asked to resign was because of a very real improper action on Sessions' part (i.e. Sessions acted in an inappropriate way for the role and Trump had some legitimate reason to fire him for cause), Sessions is still a valuable employee for a good many private sector corporations and may even return to run for his own senate seat on the next cycle it's available. Being fired can hurt these prospects when he applies or may leave his next employer with no legitimate way to spin the candidate as a capable employee, because his last boss fired him. Resignation can be spun... yes, most people will read the phrase "was asked to resign today" is read as "he was fired", but on any job application, this is asked in a form of "What was the reason for leaving your last job." If the job seeker writes "I resigned" it implies that the problem was not his fault but his boss's numerous and often well known questionable management style quirks.

Additionally, certain benefits come with resignation that do not come from firing someone. For example, in some employment situations, certain benefits are given in your severance package depending on the question of who initiated the employee leaving (see the Office Episode where one of the guys from the Merger was about to quit, only for Michael to do the "You can't quit, 'cause you're fired" line... and then realized he screwed the pooch.).

Finally, remember what happened when Trump fired Comey, who had managed to piss off just about everyone in Washington in the past year or so. Comey immediately started to go rogue and drop claims against Trump that he was not doing when he was gainfully employed. If we revisit the possibility that Sessions may have actually done something wrong, Trump could offer to let him resign to gain a possible... um... insurance (blackmail being such an ugly word and all that...) that Sessions doesn't start talking about his former boss on all the news cameras he can get pointed at him. Trump won't talk about the reasons for his request, and Sessions won't talk about his lousy boss.

And this isn't the only way to do this. Almost any time a major separation happens in creative industries (the boy band breaks up, the director leaves the film project, or an actor walks off set) expect one of the two participants to cite vague "Creative Differences" as the cause of the separation... it's best to read as they had a big fight over something (It could even be creative) and one of them was fired (though in music acts, it tends to be the band are too mad to perform... studios fire the directors or actors because of legit purposes but don't want the likely film to be called into doubt as being good by the movie watching public.).

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    Everybody knows why Sessions is no longer attorney general. The idea that his future employment prospects would be different depending on whether he was technically dismissed or asked to resign is not realistic.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 5:55
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    It's also unrealistic that Sessions would fill out a job application asking why he left his last job. If he does take private sector employment, it will involve people coming to him, and they'll know exactly who he is. He's not filling out any job applications. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 8:57
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    It's also pretty implausible that Trump cares even slightly about any potential benefit that Sessions might get from resigning rather than being fired. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 13:47
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    Also, the idea that Sessions will forget the last year and a half of public harassment just because he was not fired and that it will significally change how he thinks about Trump seems rather strange.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 15:12
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    Jeff Session is 71 and has a net worth of 5-10M$ with a very nice pension. He will simply retire. Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 18:27

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