What a panic-driven mess.
It’s clear that Rod J. Rosenstein’s job as deputy attorney general is hanging by a thread, along with that of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Yesterday, when news first broke that Rosenstein may have been fired, I felt as if my stomach drop as if on a roller-coaster.
News of Rosenstein’s impending departure, whether through forced resignation, dismissal or recognition that holding the job is no longer tenable, means that the Special Counsel investigation is in jeopardy, and with it, the likely ability for all of us to put the circumstances of the investigation to rest in anything resembling a non-partisan manner.
It also means that the president is putting himself above the law, sees no reason to answer questions of obstructing justice and that he disdains truth-telling unless it serves his personal purposes.
The proximate cause, the recent disclosure that Rosenstein in the early days of the Trump administration proposed secretly wiretapping conversations with Trump because the White House was out of control, illustrates the obvious – that Rosenstein, like so many others who have left the administration, has found himself at odds with the directions of the White House. Rosenstein was reported to have been discussing seeking Cabinet support for using the 25thAmendment to oust the president for being unfit for office.
According to news reports, Rosenstein will hold his job at least until Thursday, when he will meet with Trump. Or through November, when Trump is expected to dismiss Sessions and maybe Rosenstein, too. Or not. Maybe they can simply clear the air in their continuing disputes. All that was clear yesterday was that the serious break between Trump and Rosenstein had broken into the open – and along with it a big national dose of anti-nausea medication to deal with the public dyspeptic episode that is unfolding.
There will always be a reason in the Trump White House to dump Rosenstein and others whose loyalty is to something other than the Trump flag. Just wait until the Mueller investigation has run its course, Mr. President. Don’t add to your obstruction of justice problems or to my stomachache.
Rosenstein has been at the wrong end of Trump criticism over what he sees as a politically motivated witch hunt that is the all-things-Russia investigation led by Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel whose work is overseen by Rosenstein. In addition, the group of conservative congressional Republicans working to protect the president has consistently clashed with Rosenstein over the public release, for example, of documents associated with the special counsel investigation while the investigation continues.
According to news reports, if Rosenstein is gone, Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, would assume oversight of the Russia investigation, and Edward O’Callaghan, principal deputy attorney general, or Matthew G. Whitaker, the chief of staff to Sessions, would take Rosenstein’s place in overseeing the operations of the FBI, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and U.S. attorney offices around the country.
The focus of the media was on the various nuances of resignation as opposed to dismissal, on the future of the special counsel investigation and on the politics of all of this. All are legitimate inquiries, since dismissal and resignation trigger different replacement protocols.
But in stepping back, even for a moment, the bigger issues here are that the country is highly roiled, and the constant drip of forced resignations under the banner of enforced personal loyalty to the president is doing nothing to heal the wounds. The single most important person in this country at the moment arguably is Mueller, whose team’s work will prove critical in clearing up some of the fundamental questions we face over a foreign government interfering in our elections, over ethical and potentially criminal acts by our own government, and the ability to finally bring these questions to some kind of resolution.
Like many citizens, I have felt daily heaviness and heartache over a White House that thinks government exists to help the president, not the other way around. Whatever Mueller comes up with was to be submitted to Rosenstein to determine whether any charges could be filed, whether a report of the findings would be made public, whether the materials would be forwarded to Congress for possible consideration of impeachment.
In turn, it has become part of the Mueller effort to take pieces of his investigative work and to place responsibility for pursuing those cases in different parts of the Justice Department or even with the New York State attorney general.
It has been Rosenstein who has been holding off the attempts to derail that investigation and who has put himself between the president and the bedeviled attorney general, who had to recuse himself in the Russia probe. In non-Russia-related matters, it has been Rosenstein whose non-political professionalism has helped to hold together an increasingly impossible position for the FBI and Justice Department in areas that range from immigration to counterintelligence to incomplete backgrounding of Supreme Court candidates to plain old crime-fighting.
According to Vox, Noel Francisco would have two options as Mueller’s new boss: He could keep the status quo and allow Mueller to continue the investigation, or he could choose to curtail Mueller’s mandate or even shut down the investigation. Francisco has been a prominent Republican lawyer, once a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has defended a broad interpretation of executive power before the Supreme Court.
Early on, senators had warned Trump against dismissing Rosenstein as prompting a constitutional crisis. Over the next days, congressional Republicans will have to stand up to avoid a total cave-in to a president who would have direct control over an investigation that already has identified himself as a subject.
I don’t have to love any of these characters, but I’d like my stomachache to go away.