WASHINGTON — The head of the Justice Department’s civil division told staff members on Tuesday that he planned to resign after nearly two years in the post, according to an email obtained by The New York Times, making him the third top official at the department to step down in the past week.
The official, Joseph H. Hunt, who previously was chief of staff to Jeff Sessions when he was the attorney general, did not say why he was leaving, and a Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on his departure. It came hours after the department filed a lawsuit signed by Mr. Hunt against President Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton. The suit seeks to delay the imminent publication of Mr. Bolton’s coming memoir that is expected to disclose damaging details about Mr. Trump.
Besides Mr. Hunt, Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said last week that he was leaving in July, and Noel J. Francisco, the solicitor general, told officials at the department that he planned to leave when the Supreme Court wrapped up its session this month.
Mr. Hunt, a 20-year Justice Department veteran, led the division that defends presidential administrations in court — and that has faced formidable pressure under Mr. Trump as it undertook deeply polarizing cases that career lawyers often refused to sign. Those include the administration’s decision to no longer defend the Affordable Care Act in court, the president’s fight to add a citizenship question to the census, and the adoption of harsh stances on immigration. The division must also defend Mr. Trump against lawsuits accusing him of illegally profiting from his personal business since he took office.
So many lawyers in the division left or asked to be temporarily reassigned to other parts of the department that at one point it froze reassignment requests.
In his email to staff members, Mr. Hunt, 58, said that his last day would be July 3. He did not say where he was going next but told his staff that he was “amazed” by their work ethic and integrity. “I have the utmost respect and admiration for you because I have personally witnessed the manner in which you have carried out your responsibilities,” he wrote.
Mr. Hunt joined the Justice Department in 1999, rising through the ranks and spending much of his time in the branch of the civil division that defends lawsuits filed against the president, administration officials and the administration’s approximately 100 federal agencies and departments.
As Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff, Mr. Hunt drafted the letter recusing Mr. Sessions from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — a decision that poisoned the relationship between Mr. Trump and his first attorney general.
Mr. Hunt had a front-row seat to the early days of the Russia investigation, led by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Notes from his time as chief of staff were the basis for some of the Mueller report’s more dramatic moments, including Mr. Trump’s realization that the appointment of the special counsel signaled “the end of my presidency,” a concern he underscored with an expletive.
Mr. Hunt was confirmed in 2018 to lead the civil division by a bipartisan group of senators, a rare show of broad support for a Trump appointee. Former Justice Department officials who served in Democratic and Republican administrations supported his appointment, saying that he had a reputation for fairness and for protecting the work of career lawyers.
Powerful political allies are often selected for high-ranking positions in the administration, so Mr. Trump’s choice of a career lawyer like Mr. Hunt for such a key post was somewhat unusual. The president had initially offered the job to George T. Conway III, who is married to Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to Mr. Trump, and who has emerged as one of the president’s sharpest public critics.
Mr. Benczkowski told Attorney General William P. Barr last year that he planned to serve as head of the criminal division for only two years, and Mr. Francisco’s departure has been in the works for months, according to a department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel decisions.
It is less clear when Mr. Hunt decided to leave, and the department did not indicate whether his deputy, Ethan Davis, would serve as acting head of the division.