Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has had a whirlwind two weeks.
When a New York Times story claimed that Rosenstein had previously discussed “wearing a wire” and removing President Trump via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution (which provides for cabinet officials to declare a president incompetent to serve), it seemed almost certain he would be fired, forced to resign, or otherwise out. At one point last week, thanks to some confused reporting, it looked like the deputy attorney general was already gone.
The president, however, went a different route. Instead of firing Rosenstein in absentia (as he has previously done with many White House officials), he indicated to reporters he would “very much like to keep” Rosenstein in his post. This was, to be sure, a show of restraint as unprecedented as it was welcome, given how the president usually reacts to those who criticize him.
But now, even after a presidential reprieve, the Deputy Attorney General is back in the thick of it. The head of the cartoonishly conservative House Freedom Caucus, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, has announced that the House Judiciary Committee will have Rosenstein testify in a closed door hearing on October 11th, both on his remarks as reported by the Times and any other topic of their choosing.
The trouble is that even in normal circumstances, the hyper-partisan House - where many of the president’s most unapologetic defenders dwell - is a dangerous place for Rosenstein to go.
Set aside for a moment that it isn’t clear Rosenstein ever said the things the Times piece claimed he did. Not only did he deny it, many outlets doing subsequent reporting qualified his remarks as ‘in jest’ or ‘sarcastic.’
The more urgent issue is that Rosenstein is the manager, and the guardian, of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation - something President Trump’s aforementioned champions would very much like to do away with. (Rosenstein appointed Mueller to his post, and supervises his investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from all Russia-related matters on account of his failure to disclose his own Russian contacts to the Senate committee that approved his nomination.)
Any effort to pressure Rosenstein into resignation now, whether from the White House or the people’s House, could set our nation on a dangerous course. With the deputy attorney general out, the president would be free to do what he’s reportedly tried to do at least twice before: fire Mueller before he can complete his investigation.
Such an action would provoke a constitutional crisis, not to mention nationwide protests unlike any we’ve seen even in the past two years. It would also leave unanswered key questions that relate to our national security - namely, what was the extent of Russian interference in our 2016 election, which if any Americans in the Trump orbit aided in or benefited from that interference, and how can we stop it from happening again in 2018 and beyond?
The bottom line is simple. Mueller’s investigation must continue until it is done, so Rosenstein must keep his job.
All this is to say that the Rosenstein journey to the Hill next week is fraught with risk, and it will be up to level-headed elected officials and members of the media to react to whatever new leaks or tall tales may come out of it with the wider possible consequences in mind.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.