On Monday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a secret memo criticizing the FBI investigation into Donald Trump's presidential campaign, setting the stage for yet another dramatic showdown between the president and the institutions surrounding him. According to the New York Times, the document, prepared by Republican Intel chair Devin Nunes and his staff, trains some of its fire specifically on Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference. Though the memo has been seen only by members of Congress and some administration officials, it's said to denounce investigators for obtaining a warrant while using information from a dossier financed by Democrats during the 2016 election. (That dossier and its most salacious allegations have been the focus of conservative critiques of the Russia investigation for some time now.)
Officials at the Justice Department urged the memo not be made public, but in an apparent frenzy to discredit the Russia probe, Republicans have plowed ahead anyway. Not only did the Intel Committee vote for disclosure, but according to ranking Democratic member Adam Schiff, Republicans are now investigating the DOJ and the FBI. Donald Trump can block the release of the document, but it's not clear why he would do so. And while all of this may look like a seemingly banal procedural squabble in the longer Russia saga, the Nunes memo and the attendant fallout have ominous implications for Rosenstein, special counsel Robert Mueller, and the Trump presidency itself.
Despite nominating him for his perch in the Justice Department Trump is no fan of Rosenstein, the man Attorney General Jeff Sessions deferred to when he recused himself from the Russia investigation last year. As CNN reported Friday, the president is fairly open about wanting Rosenstein gone, having at least once grumbled, "Let's fire him, let's get rid of him." According to the Washington Post, Trump has also explicitly expressed support for releasing the memo, and is even said to have gotten angry on his flight to Davos, Switzerland, last week upon learning the Justice Department thought this was a bad idea.
Trump has also demonstrated a willingness to get rid of top law enforcement officials in the past when they prove insufficiently cooperative. Former FBI director James Comey was fired last May after Rosenstein wrote a memo critical of him, and on Monday, Comey's deputy Andrew McCabe—a man Trump has fulminated against for months—announced his own resignation, reportedly after being pressured to leave. Even though prominent Democrats in Congress are suggesting the Russia probe is nowhere near finished, citing potentially explosive new evidence, it looks increasingly like Rosenstein could be next on the chopping block.
The real red line in all this will come if Trump fires Mueller, who took charge of the investigation after the president abruptly canned Comey and promptly went on TV to say the "Russia thing" had been on his mind. Last week, the New York Times reported Trump tried to fire Mueller last year, and prominent Republican senators soon warned him not to go down that road again, while expressing vague hope the worst was behind us. "I’m sure that there will be an investigation around whether or not President Trump did try to fire Mr. Mueller," South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who frequently plays golf with Trump, told ABC's The Week. "We know that he didn’t fire Mr. Mueller. We know that if he tried to, it would be the end of his presidency.” Likewise, when asked about stalled bipartisan legislation that would protect Mueller's job, Maine senator Susan Collins told CNN's State of the Union, "There are some constitutional issues with those bills, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to put that extra safeguard in place given the latest stories. But again, I have faith in the deputy attorney general.”
Except now Rosenstein is facing his own potential head-on collision with the White House—and a president who likes his prosecutors good and loyal.
Trump firing Rosenstein would not immediately defang the Russia investigation, though it would turn DC inside-out. What we can't know is how the public might react. In 1973, when Richard Nixon infamously waged a "Saturday Night Massacre" of key Justice Department officials, he was met with broad, bipartisan scorn from across the media ecosystem. In the era of Breitbart and Sean Hannity, it's hard to imagine the outrage reaching Trump's core supporters. On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he supported both the memo's release and a "cleanse" of the FBI, an echo of a FOX News host's previous demand that FBI officials be taken out "in cuffs" and a Republican congressman's call for a "purge" at the bureau.
In this kind of environment, the release of the Nunes memo isn't a surprise, but just another step in a long Republican effort to derail an investigation and protect a president at all costs. Will the public tolerate it when they go even further? It seems inevitable that we'll soon find out.
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