Hardline conservatives have backed down from a threat to imminently force a House vote on impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
On Wednesday night, Freedom Caucus leaders Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) filed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein. The stated reason was mainly that Rosenstein allegedly wasn’t giving enough documents to Congress. But in context, the move — which wasn’t even certain to pass the House, let alone lead to Rosenstein’s removal from office — was clearly part of an effort by President Trump’s allies to attack the Justice Department and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which Rosenstein supervises.
When Meadows filed the impeachment articles, only 11 of the 236 Republicans in the House were willing to sign on to them, making it unclear how much support his effort had. House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy, for instance, had said earlier that he wouldn’t back the effort (“Impeach him for what?” he asked). GOP leaders were also unenthusiastic about the controversial push, which would likely divide their party.
However, Meadows had the opportunity to use House rules to file a “privileged motion,” which would require a vote from the full House in the next two days — effectively forcing his colleagues to take a stand on impeaching Rosenstein even though there have been no hearings on the matter and little debate about it. Republicans facing tough races in November would not have been thrilled.
In the end, however, Meadows decided not to carry out that threat — for now, at least. He did not file a privileged motion for impeachment, and House Republicans announced Thursday morning that they would not vote on the matter before they leave for a month-long recess.
It is possible the effort could be revived in September when the House returns to Washington. But that would be closer to the midterms, meaning Republicans would be even less enthusiastic to take a divisive and controversial vote.
The current word is that Republican leaders agreed to hold a vote on whether Rosenstein is in contempt of Congress in the first week of September, if conservatives don’t get the documents they want by then. (That’s a weaker alternative to an impeachment vote, which at least had the potential to remove him from office.)
What this was really about
The impeachment articles were thin. They complained that Rosenstein hadn’t appointed a second special counsel to look into why Carter Page was surveilled (even though the department’s inspector general is looking into it). They complained that not enough documents about the Clinton email and Trump-Russia probes had been handed over, and that there were some unnecessary redactions in some that were. And they complained that the Justice Department hadn’t handed over a document listing several people and areas Mueller was investigating (because the investigation is ongoing).
This is not exactly “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And there were inaccuracies in the impeachment articles too:
Among other things, some House Republicans want to impeach Rod Rosenstein for something that happened six months before he took office. pic.twitter.com/Rt3u6GJLmh— Brad Heath (@bradheath) July 25, 2018
.. and for something that happened both before Rosenstein took office *and* is belied by the declassified portions of the government's FISA application. pic.twitter.com/4rqfW0uhfV— Brad Heath (@bradheath) July 25, 2018
The true motivation is widely believed to be more political — protecting Trump — than substantive. “In the abstract, I’d love to see Congressional oversight playing hardball on access to documents,” Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute tweeted, “but it’s, uh, suspicious they’ve chosen to go nuclear in a case where what’s unusual is how MUCH DOJ has produced on an ongoing investigation.”
There was zero chance Rosenstein would have actually been removed from office through the impeachment process. It’s not even clear an impeachment resolution would have passed the House. Even if that were to happen, a two-thirds majority in the Senate would be required to remove Rosenstein from his position — meaning at least 16 Democratic votes would be necessary, which would never happen.
The effort’s primary purpose was clearly to undermine and discredit Rosenstein politically, and some have also feared that the goal was to create a pretext for Trump to fire Rosenstein and put someone in place who would constrain or end Mueller’s investigation. That is: If the House did vote to impeach Rosenstein or even came close to it, Trump could have just fired him and said he was too embattled to do his job anymore, without waiting for the Senate to weigh in.
Trump has reportedly mused privately about firing either Rosenstein, Mueller, or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but he has refrained from doing so yet — evidently fearing it would cause a political crisis for his administration. Trump could change his mind at any moment, but until at least September, he won’t have a House of Representatives vote he can use as an excuse.
After conservatives had agreed to back down from the impeachment push, Speaker Paul Ryan announced publicly that he did not support impeaching Rosenstein. “I don’t think that this rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors,” he said.
Meanwhile, word leaked out that Jordan, who co-wrote the impeachment articles, will soon announce that he’s running to replace the retiring Ryan as speaker.