The third-highest ranking official at the Department of Justice — who would oversee the federal Russia investigation if President Donald Trump were to fire deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — is planning to resign, the New York Times reported Friday.
Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general, will leave the DOJ for a job in the private sector, according to the report.
The move — which could allow Trump to exercise more power over the ongoing Russia probe — is coming amid increasing tensions between the president and federal law enforcement over that investigation, which Rosenstein has presided over since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the matter in March 2017 after it was revealed he’d had undisclosed contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016.
Trump has publicly attacked Sessions for his recusal, saying over the summer that the decision was “very unfair” to him and that he would have picked someone else for attorney general if he’d known he’d recuse himself.
Rosenstein’s future at the Justice department has become a matter of speculation in recent weeks amid reports that Trump has grown frustrated with the deputy attorney general. Some have feared that the president will use the controversial memo by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), which alleged abuse of power at the FBI and DOJ, to terminate Rosenstein — which Democrats warned would spark a “constitutional crisis.”
The White House has said that Trump does not plan to fire Rosenstein, but the president himself seemed to leave that possibility open when asked last week by reporters if he had confidence in the deputy attorney general.
“You figure that one out,” Trump said.
Firing Rosenstein would be a colossal move by Trump.
Rosenstein is the only person right now who is authorized to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation that has already brought down four former advisers to Trump, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump has long been publicly raged against the probe — which he frequently describes as a “witch hunt” — and reportedly called for Mueller to be sacked over the summer, but backed off when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign.
Brand, who has served in the Justice department under three administrations, would be in charge of the Russia probe — and have authority to fire Mueller — if Trump were to get rid of Rosenstein.
She has also been a proponent of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was used by federal law enforcement to investigate Carter Page — a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. The Nunes memo, which the president declassified last week, alleged that authorities improperly used the disputed dossier by ex-British spy Christopher Steele to obtain the FISA warrants used to surveil the campaign aide.
Trump said the memo “totally vindicates” him in the investigation, which he described as an “American disgrace.”
Brand’s sudden reported resignation follows several other high-profile departures in federal law enforcement during Trump’s first year and change in office.
Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January 2017, days into his presidency. In March, the DOJ asked for the resignation of U.S. attorney Preet Bharara and dozens of other Obama administration holdovers. The president fired FBI Director James Comey in May after apparently asking him to kill the federal probe into Flynn.
Most recently, in late January, Andrew McCabe — the deputy director of the FBI — announced that he will be stepping down from his post after months of intense criticism from Trump.
A DOJ spokesperson indicated Friday that solicitor general Noel Francisco now becomes the third-ranking official at the department. The conservative, who Democrats worried during his confirmation hearing last summer would prioritize Trump over the law, is poised to inherit significant power over the Russia probe in the event that Rosenstein is ousted.
Brand’s responsibilities at the DOJ included the department’s civil rights and antitrust divisions, according to the Times.