For weeks, conservatives in and out of government have aimed to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election. That criticism could potentially pave the way for Trump to demand Mueller’s ouster.
But on Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein backed the Mueller probe in an exchange with the House Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member Jerry Nadler (D-NY) during an oversight hearing.
“If you were ordered today to fire Mr. Mueller, what would you do?” Nadler asked. “I would follow regulation,” Rosenstein replied. “If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not.”
And when Nadler pushed further, asking if Rosenstein had seen any cause to terminate Mueller, Rosenstein said he had not.
Here’s why that’s important: Rosenstein appointed Mueller as the special counsel in May, and he’s the only one with the authority to fire him. If Trump asked Rosenstein to remove Mueller, Rosenstein could decline to do so. That could potentially lead to a situation where Trump could then fire Rosenstein and replace him with someone who would do Trump’s bidding.
But Rosenstein also told lawmakers during Wednesday’s hearing that no one so far has asked Rosenstein to fire Mueller. And Rosenstein even went so far as to defend Mueller himself, saying, “It would've been difficult to find anyone more qualified for this job.”
Some conservatives want Mueller gone
Rosenstein’s defense won’t make Mueller’s critics happy. There’s a growing conservative effort to remove Mueller, which makes Rosenstein’s comments all the more noteworthy.
“I think the president should’ve fired Mueller long ago,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), one of the leading voices in the push to discredit Mueller, told me in an interview.
Gaetz and his cohort point to perceived corruption and bias in the Mueller probe, including recent texts where a top FBI official who was once part of Mueller’s staff called Trump an “idiot.” They fear the investigation is actually aimed at removing Trump instead of dispassionately gathering facts.
It’s important to note that top Republicans — like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — say they continue to support Mueller’s investigation. And officials in Trump’s orbit have also told him that removing Mueller would be a bad idea.
But the timing of the anti-Mueller push is not coincidental. It comes as the special counsel appears to be closing in on Trump’s inner circle. Mueller has already charged four people — two of whom pleaded guilty, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Multiple reports suggest Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner could be the next target. Plus, it appears Mueller is building a case that Trump himself may have obstructed justice.
So Rosenstein’s defense comes at an opportune time for Mueller — but it’s doubtful it will satisfy Mueller’s most vocal critics.