Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, will leave the Justice Department once a new attorney general is confirmed, multiple news outlets reported Wednesday.
Rosenstein’s pending departure throws the investigation into fresh peril just as Mueller and his team are reportedly edging closer to a final report that could implicate President Donald Trump and his campaign in a scheme to help Russia meddle in the 2016 presidential election.
The news also comes as Trump is attempting to get his nominee to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, William Barr, through Senate confirmation. Barr authored a memo in June that was highly critical of the Mueller probe.
The news “raises the stakes” on Barr’s confirmation hearing next week, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told CNN on Wednesday.
“[T]he deep concern will be if he comes in and Rosenstein is gone, is this just a… preface to either undercutting the investigation or trying to keep the results of it hidden from the American public,” Kaine said.
If current special counsel charges — and any others Mueller wants to bring — aren’t already filed under seal, the future attorney general would have to sign off on them. That raises the fear among many Democrats that Barr could run interference at Justice for Trump and his political allies.
Rosenstein took over as acting attorney general for the Russian investigation after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions III recused himself over contacts he had with Russian officials during the presidential campaign. He appointed Mueller as special counsel and oversaw the investigation until Sessions resigned in November and Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.
Justice Department officials reportedly recommended that Whitaker also recuse himself because of his own past criticisms of the Mueller probe, but Whitaker rejected those recommendations. The question of recusal is likely to play a large role in Barr’s nomination hearing, and Republicans are already previewing a novel argument: that Barr’s memo saying he’d fire Mueller doesn’t necessary mean he’d fire Mueller.
Outgoing Chairman Chuck Grassley meets with Attorney General nominee William Barr. Grassley wouldn't take questions, but last night he argued that Barr's writings as a private citizen — in which he has criticized the Mueller probe — were separate from his public life pic.twitter.com/eRtvmAp7Hc
— Jeremy Herb (@jeremyherb) January 9, 2019
Trump often takes to Twitter to deride the special counsel investigation as a “witch hunt,” but Mueller’s team has racked up a long track record of indictments and guilty pleas to date — including several former Trump campaign aides and associates. Firing him anytime soon would stymie an investigation that’s proven fruitful, efficient, and effective:
- Former Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos spent 12 days in jail after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with well-connected Russians during the campaign.
- Former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn Sr. pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
- Former Trump campaign chair Paul J. Manafort, Jr. was convicted in federal court in Virginia on a host of tax evasion and fraud charges. He has also pleaded guilty to similar charges in a case in Washington, D.C., and is fighting allegations that he violated a plea deal by lying to investigators. This week, a court filing accidentally revealed Manafort had personally passed information from the campaign to Konstantin Kilimnik, a man the FBI believes is an operative for Russian state intelligence.
- Kilimnik, who was also Manafort’s business partner, is under indictment for helping Manafort tamper with witnesses. Kilimnik associate Samuel Patten pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent. He also admitted to helping Kilimnik, who is Russian, launder an illegal donation to Trump’s inaugural committee.
- Former Trump campaign aide and Manafort business partner Richard W. Gates III pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and conspiracy against the U.S. Both charges stemmed from his work, with Manafort, on behalf of pro-Kremlin politicians in Ukraine.
- Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and lying to Congress over hush-money payments during the campaign. He says at the behest of Trump, he paid two women to stay quiet about affairs they say they had with Trump.
- Another Manafort associate, Alex van der Zwaan, served 30 days in prison for lying to federal investigators, while Andrew Miller, an associate of former Trump campaign aide Roger Stone Jr., is fighting a contempt charge after he defied a subpoena from Mueller’s grand jury.
The news of Rosenstein’s departure from the Justice Department would almost certainly put future indictments in jeopardy. Stone associate Jerome Corsi released a draft indictment last year in which the special counsel’s office charged him with lying to federal investigators. Most observers also expect Stone himself to face charges.
If confirmed, Barr would then be in position to sign off on any charges Mueller intends to file.
“Will he enable [the investigation] to have the resources it needs? And he will make sure that the results are available to Congress and the American public?,” Kaine asked Wednesday. “Those questions assume greater importance.”