The state of Maryland launched a court challenge on Tuesday to the legality of President Donald Trump's appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting U.S. attorney general, saying the president overstepped his constitutional authority and broke federal law.
Trump installed Whitaker as acting attorney general last week after ordering Jeff Sessions to resign from the post. Trump had repeatedly criticized Sessions for recusing himself in March 2017 from the federal investigation, now headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election, a probe Trump has called a "witch hunt."
Democrats in Congress have voiced concern that Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, could undermine or even fire Mueller.
Maryland asked U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander to bar Whitaker from appearing in an official capacity as acting attorney general in existing litigation related to the Affordable Care Act healthcare law and to substitute Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in Whitaker's place.
With Whitaker's appointment, Rosenstein is no longer in charge of the investigation.
The city of San Francisco, also involved in litigation against the Trump administration, on Monday also told the Justice Department it may sue to challenge Whitaker's appointment.
Whitaker's appointment as the top U.S. law enforcement official gives him authority over Mueller's investigation, which already has led to criminal charges against a series of former Trump aides and has cast a cloud over his presidency. Whitaker, who had served as chief of staff for Sessions, previously questioned the scope of Mueller's investigation and spoke about the idea of reducing funding for the special counsel so the probe "grinds to almost a halt."
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, said in a statement the state plans to challenge Whitaker's appointment on two legal grounds.
Maryland argues that Rosenstein, the department's No. 2 official, should have succeeded Sessions under an existing federal succession law that vests full authority in the deputy attorney general should the office of attorney general become vacant. The state also argues that Trump violated the so-called Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution because the job of attorney general is a "principal officer" who must be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.