Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday firmly rejected an effort by House conservatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, putting him at odds with hard-liners in his party and even some in his own leadership team.
But it’s unclear how long he can keep them at bay.
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Just minutes after the Wisconsin Republican told reporters that he did not think Rosenstein’s actions merited his removal from office, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said Ryan had agreed to a different deal: Conservatives would give the Justice Department “one last chance” in August to turn over a range of documents that lawmakers subpoenaed in March or else Rosenstein could face charges of contempt of Congress.
“The speaker is willing to support [House Judiciary Committee] Chairman [Bob] Goodlatte in a contempt process if the agreed upon documents are not delivered,” said Meadows, a top ally of President Donald Trump.
Moving forward with contempt proceedings would escalate the clash between Congress and DOJ and potentially become a court battle over Capitol Hill’s access to Executive Branch documents.
The agreement, negotiated on the House floor Thursday morning, highlights how Ryan has attempted to balance the aggressive demands of Trump allies without undermining the ongoing investigations of the Justice Department or Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election including potential collusion with the Trump campaign.
Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), top House conservatives, introduced articles of impeachment late Wednesday that accused Rosenstein of obstructing their demands to access sensitive documents connected to Mueller’s investigation and other FBI records.
But Ryan told reporters Thursday that the Department of Justice was largely complying with demands for documents that were the subject of two subpoenas earlier this year.
The internal GOP dispute over how to approach the Justice Department has been ongoing for weeks but is now dividing the party publicly. Many Republicans told POLITICO they were uncomfortable with the impeachment effort.
“Reckless publicity stunt,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). “No different from Dems who filed articles of impeachment against the President some months ago. What a sad, pathetic game of ‘How low can you go?'”
In his press conference Thursday, Ryan smacked down the impeachment effort more forcefully than either of this top lieutenants — Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who are considered contenders to succeed Ryan.
“I don’t think we should be cavalier with this process or this term,” he said of impeachment. “I don’t think this rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Ryan also cited a legislative reason for holding off: he worries it will upend the GOP’s entire Hill agenda by tying “the Senate into knots.”
Impeachment in the Senate is “about as privileged as anything gets over there,” he said, and would clog up the legislative process should senators demand action on the matter right away — even if the effort would certainly fall flat. A two-thirds vote is required in the Senate to remove executive branch officials.
“It would derail or delay a big part of our agenda, our appropriations bills, our infrastructure bills… the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to go to the Supreme Court,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s comments put him at odds with Scalise, who expressed support for the idea in a Fox News interview earlier in the day. McCarthy, for his part, repeatedly refused to support or oppose impeachment when asked by reporters at the Capitol.
Away from the Capitol, Rosenstein found support Thursday from his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“My deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is highly capable. I have the highest confidence in him,” Sessions said during a press conference in Boston.
Other rank-and-file lawmakers went further, blasting their conservative colleagues and describing the impeachment push as a cynical ploy to gin up conservative voters or to goad President Donald Trump into firing Rosenstein and exerting more control over the Mueller probe.
“It’s a show,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “I think they think it will please the president, they think it’ll please the base. I would hate to think that it is a precursor to saying to the president ‘Go ahead and fire him.’”
Meadows and Jordan on Wednesday passed up an opportunity to force a quick vote on impeachment by opting against pursuing a “privileged” resolution, a procedural tactic that allows members to demand a vote within two legislative days.
But as House lawmakers prepared to depart for a five-week recess, conservatives threatened to refile using the expedited procedure. That’s when Meadows, Jordan and other conservative allies huddled on the floor with Scalise, Goodlatte and Ryan’s legal counsel to find a way forward.
Under the agreement, according to Meadows, the documents he and his allies will demand cover records being reviewed by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who’s reviewing the origins of the FBI’s probe of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign in 2016. Meadows said the list of requested documents would be compiled later today and would be limited to files that had already been demanded in the earlier subpoena.
Additional requests — like conservatives’ demand to see Rosenstein’s August 2017 memo detailing the scope of Mueller’s probe — wouldn’t be factored into the decision to move forward on contempt. Meadows added that he had no contact with the president on this matter.
Justice Department officials have emphasized that they’ve mounted a historically aggressive effort to share hundreds of thousands of pages of documents with Congress. They’ve built out two rooms at Justice Department headquarters where lawmakers and aides visit daily to negotiate access to files and possible redactions.
The department also built a software tool to comb through its database of top secret records in order to provide responses to congressional demands. Officials indicated that they’re focused primarily on requests that come directly from committee chairmen like Goodlatte and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, unlike lawmakers like Meadows — who isn’t on either of those committees.
But Meadows noted he still has impeachment as an option in his arsenal and hasn’t taken it off the table if his demands aren’t met by September.
Rebecca Morin contributed.