Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next attorney general, William Barr, will drop in on Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley on Wednesday morning to chitchat about the strategy by which Republicans will pretend to conduct a confirmation hearing. Secure in their Senate majority, and untroubled by anyone who will genuinely act against Trump’s wishes, rather than just occasionally penning a self-serving editorial, Republicans have every reason to believe that Barr can chow down on Constitution stew during the hearing without concern that it will affect his prospects.
Meanwhile, CNN reports that Barr, coming in, will pass deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein on the way out. Rosenstein has indicated that he will resign from the DOJ when the new attorney general takes his seat. For almost two years, Rosenstein has been a very unlikely hero. A staunch Republican who authored the letter Trump used as an excuse to fire FBI director James Comey, Rosenstein might easily have been remembered as yet another Trumpist, willing to bend the truth well beyond the breaking point to allow Trump to continue wiping his feet on the traditional boundaries of executive power. Except for one thing: It was Rosenstein who determined that Trump’s actions required the appointment of a special counsel to look into both the possibility of conspiracy between his 2016 campaign and Russia and Trump’s attempts to obstruct investigations into that conspiracy after taking office.
Because of former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ recusal from all things Russia-related, it was also Rosenstein who supervised the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller for more than a year. During that time, Rosenstein seemed to repeatedly protect Mueller from attempts to derail his investigation, and on at least one occasion expanded the investigation’s writ, explicitly allowing Mueller to look into the money-laundering and foreign lobbying of Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.
Rosenstein has considered resigning several times, and last fall had apparently written that resignation, or was facing an ouster by Trump, on at least two occasions. However, he had indicated to friends that he would only leave “when he was satisfied that Mueller’s investigation was either complete or close enough to completion that it was protected.”
So … is he?
Since Mueller was appointed, any word that Trump was about to fire Rosenstein—and that word came with some frequency—was seen as tantamount to sinking the special counsel investigation. However, since Sessions’ I-resigned-you-were-fired at the start of November, the investigation has been nominally in the hands of acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker. Any protection that Mueller still enjoys at this point is simply the knowledge of what would happen should Trump move against him. Meaning that, at this point, Rosenstein’s departure is unlikely to change a thing.
That’s not to say that Barr will not do what Whitaker only proposed. Before he was appointed to a role in Trump’s DOJ, Whitaker had written a number of articles critical of Mueller. That included one in which Whitaker speculated about ways a new attorney general might de-fang the investigation, by robbing it of resources and denying approval for indictments without actually firing Mueller.
But Whitaker, whose biggest qualification before taking office was a failed political run and a stint scamming money from people for non-existent “world patents,” may not have been the right person to actually carry out the scheme. Barr, who served in the same role under George H. W. Bush, has also written snide commentaries about the special counsel’s office, and may be seen as someone who has the political gravitas to shut down the investigation, aided by the anything-for-Trump Republicans of the Senate.
So … if Rosenstein is leaving, does it mean that he thinks the investigation is genuinely, actually “wrapping up,” as pundits have claimed at least a hundred times over three times that many days? Maybe. Or it could be that those “routine” meetings between Rosenstein and Trump included the exchange of some information that the deputy attorney general feels provides assurance of Mueller being left to complete his work? Or maybe Rod Rosenstein is simply tired and ready to go.
Confirmation hearings for Barr begin on January 15. Considering the speed with which Republicans are expected to hustle him through the process, don’t expect to see Rod Rosenstein in D.C. on Groundhog Day.