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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (L) and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Unpacked

Can Trump stop the DOJ’s Russia investigation?

Editor's Note:

In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.

THE ISSUE: Amidst pressure and criticism from President Trump, senior law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy General Rosenstein, must weigh the political value of resigning with the possibility of the president using their absence to interfere with the ongoing Russia investigation.

The president’s behavior has worked to describe law enforcement as a political entity—that is, as merely an arm of presidential power.

THE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

Author

  • Both Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Attorney General Sessions are in a difficult position as the president publicly ridicules and places substantive demands on them.
  • Under normal circumstances, officials in this situation would likely resign in a fashion that makes clear the unacceptability of the president’s behavior.
  • But there are also important countervailing factors: as long as Sessions and Rosenstein remain in place, the investigation by special prosecutor Mueller is protected.
  • Thus, they have a very important role in protecting the integrity of an ongoing investigation that may affect the president on a personal level.
  • Many people at the Department of Justice have rallied behind Sessions and Rosenstein, stressing that they should not give in to this kind of bullying. Though the president would like to replace them, refusing to resign is an act of defiance in and of itself.
  • Without public pushback from senior law enforcement officials like Sessions and Rosenstein, the president’s rhetoric may infect the broader law enforcement community’s mission and the public’s view of their function.
  • If Rosenstein and Sessions are forced from office, either through resignation or removal by the president, there would be an immediate crisis with respect to the Russia investigation. The question of whether the president could altogether destroy the investigation, either by installing someone or by his own action, would become immediate and acute
  • Congress can do a number of things to prevent Trump’s intervention into the investigation. The first is to speak up very loudly about this as an unacceptable situation—Senator Grassley has already stated that there will not be a confirmation hearing for another attorney general. Senator Graham has also said that the firing of Mueller would mark “the beginning of the end of the Trump Administration”.
  • Another option is for members of Congress to make clear that the president cannot expect their support on any matters related to interference with the Mueller investigation or the removal of senior leaders from the Department of Justice.
  • This would represent a marked shift in the behavior of members of Congress from their reaction to the firing of FBI Director James Comey, about which many said nothing or actively supported the president’s action.
  • The fact that interference by President Trump did not end with Comey seems to have awakened lawmakers, demonstrated by an active response to denounce the removal of Sessions, Rosenstein, or Mueller.

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