As US president, Donald Trump has attacked companies, the intelligence community, district courts, and Republican congressmen on Twitter. On Friday morning, in yet another baffling move, he went after the most powerful US government official in charge of the ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the last US election.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” Trump tweeted just after 9am from his personal account.
This tweet does two things: First, it confirms news reports (paywall) that Trump himself is under investigation, reportedly for obstruction of justice for abruptly firing FBI director James Comey. Secondly, it pits Trump against deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling, after Trump’s former campaign advisor and current attorney general Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself.
Rosenstein is the one person in the US government who has the authority to fire Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor brought on to run the investigation. But Trump, as president, has the authority to fire Rosenstein, a career justice department civil servant who has worked under five presidents. Trump’s tweet immediately sparked concern in Congress he might try to do so.
“If the president thinks he can fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will shut down the investigation, he’s in for a rude awakening,” said senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, on Friday. “Even his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law.”
Like several of the president’s recent moves, criticizing Rosenstein is unlikely to help Trump achieve his longterm goals. Trump has already alienated the intelligence community by openly mocking ongoing investigations and by using an appearance at the Central Intelligence Agency to promote his agenda rather than praise agents killed on the job. Since then, dozens of critical leaks about the Russia investigation and Trump’s handling of classified information have been reported, seriously undermining the administration’s agenda.
Still, attacking the Department of Justice while it is conducting a probe of Trump’s own actions seems particularly misguided, and Democrats in Congress saw an easy opening.
Even his own internal advisors seem to have washed their hands of the problem. A White House spokeswoman referred questions about why no one in the administration was able to halt the apparent self-sabotage to Trump’s outside lawyer, Mark Kasowitz. Kasowitz didn’t return a call to his office.
Rosenstein, meanwhile, is conducting his job as if he isn’t being targeted by the president of the United States.
Speaking at an awards ceremony for attorney generals just an hour after Trump’s Friday morning tweet, Rosenstein touched on department’s commitment to the rule of law. “Every day, you are on the frontlines of America’s justice system, making our country safer and better by protecting our fellow citizens, promoting equal justice, and upholding the Constitution and the rule of law,” he said.
One variable that could impact the investigation is if Rosenstein recused himself, due to his involvement in the firing of Comey. He is open to such recusal if necessary, the DOJ said on Friday. If this did happen, associate attorney Rachel Brand, who worked as White House counsel under George W. Bush, would take charge of the probe. “The Deputy Attorney General has said numerous times, if there comes a point when he needs to recuse, he will. However, nothing has changed,” a DOJ spokesman said.