‘Witch hunt’: Trump could force out US Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein, but that would fail to stop Russia probe
Trump put fresh pressure on the second-highest-ranking official at the Justice Department on Friday, raising concerns among the president’s critics that Rod Rosenstein could be in danger of being fired
If US President Donald Trump fires Rob Rosenstein or prods him into recusing himself from the Russia meddling investigation he oversees, the he risks creating chaos at the US Justice Department while failing to stop the inquiry.
The future of Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, came under doubt Friday when Trump attacked him in a tweet and a US official confirmed that Rosenstein has told colleagues he may have to recuse himself from the inquiry because he’d criticised James Comey in a memo before Trump fired the former FBI director.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” Trump said on Twitter.
“Witch Hunt.” The tweet marked the first time Trump has publicly acknowledged that he is under investigation personally.
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
A source on Trump’s legal team attempted to clarify the missive, claiming he was reacting to media reports about the investigation rather than offering public confirmation.
Depending on how events play out, the Justice Department could face a crisis not seen since the so-called Saturday Night Massacre when President Richard Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned after being ordered to fire the independent special prosecutor overseeing the Watergate investigation, said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor.
“This is not a hypothetical exercise,” said Cramer, who’s managing director of consulting firm Berkeley Research Group LLC.
“This is playing out in real time.”
But Trump is likely to be disappointed if he is ultimately seeking to stop the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, according to Cramer and members of Congress.
“If the president thinks he can fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will shut down the investigation, he’s in for a rude awakening,” Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Friday.
“Even his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law.”
Mueller, meanwhile, has sought to beef up his investigatory firepower.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, said he now has “13 attorneys on board, with several more in the pipeline.”
Rosenstein, 52, has said little publicly, but a cryptic statement he released late Thursday captured some of the strain and frustration he is probably feeling about the numerous unauthorised leaks about the Russia investigation that have angered the president, according to several of his colleagues and friends.
“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country - let alone the branch or agency of government - with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated,” Rosenstein said.
“Americans should be sceptical about anonymous allegations.”
Rosenstein was confirmed by the Senate in April on a vote of 94-6. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters Thursday that Rosenstein shouldn’t recuse himself.
Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, said that Rosenstein “has said numerous times, if there comes a point when he needs to recuse, he will. However nothing has changed.”
Although the White House initially said Rosenstein’s memo led Trump to fire Comey, the president later said he did so because of the Russia investigation.
If Trump’s goal is to limit Mueller’s probe or force him out, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said this week, “that would be disastrous for him. I mean Mueller is one of the most respected guys in America.”
Watch: Rosenstein says no basis to fire Mueller
Under federal rules, Trump can’t fire Mueller. Rosenstein is the only official who could do it because Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously recused himself from the probe into Russian interference in last year’s presidential campaign and whether anyone close to Trump colluded with the Russians.
Rosenstein has defended Mueller and said he wouldn’t fire him without good cause.
If Rosenstein were out of the picture, responsibility for overseeing Mueller’s investigation - and deciding his fate - would fall to Rachel Brand, the department’s associate attorney general.
Brand is a conservative who served in the department under President George W. Bush and doesn’t have a background in criminal prosecutions. If Trump fired Rosenstein, Brand might resign because she and Rosenstein were nominated together, have a close working relationship and went through their confirmation hearings as a team.
And if Rosenstein and Brand were both out of the picture, responsibility for the investigation would fall to Dana Boente, the acting head of the department’s national security division and the current US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Trump might view Boente as an ally and the most likely person to do his bidding. Trump named Boente as acting attorney general in late January after firing Sally Yates for refusing to defend his original travel ban. Boente carried out the defence.
Boente, however, was nominated by former President Barack Obama and his US attorney’s office has already been leading parts of the federal investigation. Alternatively, Trump could name a new acting deputy attorney general.
Regardless of the chaos that could ensue in the leadership of the Justice Department, Mueller’s investigation appears insulated, and much of the work of the department done by US attorneys across the country will continue, Cramer said.
“You’re not stopping this train,” Cramer said.
Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, The Washington Post