President Donald Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill have long shown a willingness to attack both the FBI and Department of Justice figures investigating him and his campaign, repeatedly blasting the Russia probe as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
But a pair of reports Tuesday suggested federal law enforcement officials are just as wiling to fight on the matter, and the heightened rhetoric may now set up a showdown between special counsel Robert Mueller and the president’s legal team.
On Monday it was reported that conservatives on the House Freedom Caucus drafted articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been overseeing the Russia investigation since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters related to the probe in early 2017.
“There are people who have been making threats, privately and publicly, against me for quite some time,” Rosenstein said. “And I think they should understand by now [that] the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”
On Tuesday night, the Washington Post reported Mueller, who Trump has directly attacked several times in recent weeks, had threatened to subpoena the president back in March if he refused to testify as part of his probe. This is the first-known subpoena threat Mueller issued against the president, and the episode apparently led to disputes within Trump’s legal team and the resignation of Trump attorney John Dowd on March 22.
This posturing by Rosenstein and Mueller suggests top law enforcement officials are not bending to the threats from Trump. The president again went on the attack Tuesday, tweeting that “there was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap).”
The latest Trump outburst came on the heels of a New York Times report on the questions Mueller is seeking to ask him in a possible interview. The dozens of questions, derived from a list compiled by Trump’s legal team and apparently leaked to the Times via a third party, delve into the president’s role in key episodes related to his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in 2016 as well as potential obstruction of justice on his part.
Trump on Tuesday said it was “disgraceful” that the questions were leaked. On Wednesday, he tweeted a quote from Joseph diGenova — the former United States attorney he hired in March but ultimately did not bring on because of “conflicts” — that described the questions as “an intrusion into the President’s Article 2 powers under the Constitution to fire any Executive Branch Employee.”
Trump’s legal team, now under the leadership of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has been negotiating with Mueller about the possibility of an interview with the president.
Trump had been waffling publicly as to whether he’d agree to participate or not, but he reportedly became less willing to do so after the FBI raided the office and residence of his long-time personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen as part of a separate probe.
That raid, conducted under referral from Mueller and signed off by Rosenstein, touched off a new round of concern that the president would seek to kneecap Mueller by firing Rosenstein or attempting to dismiss the special counsel directly.
In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee in late April passed a bipartisan bill to protect the special counsel from the president; all the panel’s Democrats and four Republicans voted to advance the legislation to the full Senate. It’s destined to fail there, but it sends a message to the White House that any attempts to undermine the FBI probe could come with political consequences.
The Freedom Caucus’ articles of impeachment against Rosenstein — also extremely unlikely to gain a foothold in Congress — seem to be something of a retort to that Senate Judiciary bill, a political document designed to cover Trump in his battle with the FBI and DOJ.
That battle could get uglier in the coming weeks.
CNN reports Trump appears increasingly unlikely to voluntarily testify before the special counsel’s team, which could trigger Mueller to compel the president to interview. That, according to CNN, could lead Trump’s legal team to challenge the subpoena in court.
“We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law,” Rosenstein said Tuesday. “Any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect how we’re going to do our job.”