The Justice Department official overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe says he would ignore calls to fire Mueller unless he considered them “lawful and appropriate.”
“I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe they are lawful,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said during a Senate hearing amid media reports that President Donald Trump has been weighing whether to oust Mueller, possibly in an attempt to halt the politically sensitive investigation.
Rosenstein said Trump hadn’t asked him any questions about Mueller’s appointment but that he would ignore even a request from the president if he deemed it inappropriate. Unless there were "good cause" to fire Mueller, Rosenstein said, "it wouldn’t matter what anybody said.”
Rosenstein told the Senate appropriations committee that he hadn’t seen any cause to fire Mueller, who’s investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether any associates of the president colluded with Russians during the campaign.
And he said he would ensure that Mueller would operate free of interference throughout the probe. "Director Mueller is going to have the full degree of independence he needs to conduct the investigation appropriately," Rosenstein said, adding later that he hasn’t talked to Mueller since his appointment to the special counsel role.
Mueller’s investigation is widely seen as the most perilous for the Trump White House of the various probes into Russia matters. It encompasses questions about whether any of the president’s campaign associates worked with Russians to help undermine the election. It also includes questions about whether Trump himself obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, following a series of meetings in which Comey said Trump asked him to help “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe. Comey also testified last week that Trump asked him to halt a related investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who was among Trump’s top surrogates during the 2016 election — recused himself from any role in the Russia probe, and his own meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year have become a subject of controversy. As a result, Rosenstein is the highest-ranking official at the Justice Department overseeing Mueller’s Russia probe.
Under questioning from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Rosenstein acknowledged that there is no detailed document describing Sessions’ recusal beyond a broad statement that he would not be involved in matters arising from the 2016 election.
“Is there such a document?” Schatz asked.
“No, because it’s not necessary,” Rosenstein said. “The department is a hierarchy and so nothing gets to the attorney general about matters he’s recused from unless they come through my office.”
“What if they come through the Oval Office?” Schatz interjected.
“We’re not briefing the Oval Office, so I don’t know how they would get there,” Rosenstein replied.
The deputy attorney general maintained that he would not disclose what specific investigations he is blocking Sessions from involvement in.
“I have a responsibility not to talk publicly about what we’re investigating or who we’re investigating because that could adversely affect the investigation and because it could be unfair to people who were under investigation,” Rosenstein said, echoing a criticism he offered about Comey at the time of his dismissal.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) pressed Rosenstein on whether Sessions would be violating his recusal if he fired Mueller. “I don’t expect that to happen, Senator,” Rosenstein replied, eventually conceding that it was “probably fair” to say it would breach the recusal.
Van Hollen said he doubted Rosenstein would remove Mueller, but feared that Trump might keep firing Justice Department leaders in order to get rid of the special counsel — much as President Richard Nixon did in the Saturday Night Massacre.
“I’m worried about in those circumstances, the president [would] keep going until he found someone to take that action,” the Maryland senator said.
Rosenstein also rebuffed a question about whether Mueller would be able to challenge such a dismissal in court. “I hope we never reach that point. That like a law school hypothetical I’d be reluctant to answer without doing some research first,” the deputy attorney general said.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) dismissed reports that Trump may have been moving closer to firing Mueller and that such a plan could be in the works. He asked Rosenstein whether there was any sort of “secret plan” to dump Mueller.
"There is no secret plan that involves me," Rosenstein said. Later, under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rosenstein said he stands by his decision to appoint Mueller.
Rosenstein has been mentioned as a possible witness in Mueller’s probe, should it veer toward an investigation of any obstruction of justice. He authored a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of 2016’s Clinton investigation, which the White House initially used as a justification for firing Comey — but one the president undermined a day later when he said he fired Comey in part to get past the Russia probe. Asked if becoming a witness would be a conflict of interest, Rosenstein said, “I’m not going to answer hypothetical questions.”
In his own round of questioning, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) alluded to concerns raised by some critics of Mueller’s investigation, noting that an attorney who’s been connected to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been tapped to join Mueller’s team.
“Isn’t that much closer to a conflict of interest?” Graham wondered, suggesting he intends to raise a concern with Mueller and DOJ.
But Feinstein said she has serious concerns about the possibility that Trump may move to fire Mueller. "I do believe it would be catastrophic and I do believe it would destroy any shred of trust in the president’s judgment that remains over here,” she said.
Rosenstein rejected most of the scenarios senators laid out during the hearing regarding Mueller as exceedingly remote. However, during an exchange with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) the deputy attorney general seemed to concede that his own firing wasn’t out of the question.
“Could you be terminated without cause?” Manchin asked.
“Yes,” Rosenstein replied, adding warily: “Anything’s possible, senator.”
“I understand. That’s what we know,” Manchin responded.