President Donald Trump’s top allies in the House are considering a last-ditch attempt to circumvent Republican leaders and punish Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and a regular Trump confidant, said Tuesday he’s weighing the introduction of a resolution to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress. That move that could force a vote — even without Speaker Paul Ryan’s blessing — before the House leaves town for a five-week recess on Thursday.
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Under House rules, lawmakers can force a vote on such a “privileged” motion two days after filing it. If Meadows were to file his resolution before the end of the day Tuesday, he’d be empowered to seek a vote before the House departs on Thursday. Meadows described his thinking on whether to file the resolution “fluid.”
The move would come over the objections of Ryan and other House leaders. It would mark a sharp escalation of efforts to undercut the nation’s second most powerful law enforcement official, one who holds great sway over Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians.
Meadows and a band of Trump allies in the House have regularly floated the possibility of holding Rosenstein in contempt or even seeking his removal through impeachment, accusing him of stonewalling Congress’ ability to obtain documents that shed light on the origins of Russia probe that Mueller now leads.
“I don’t think there is a real appetite for any of us to leave town without getting documents,” Meadows told reporters Tuesday.
But Democrats and Justice Department defenders see a more pernicious goal: to weaken Rosenstein so Trump can exert more influence over the Mueller probe, which has crept deeply into Trump’s inner circle. Ryan, too, has downplayed the lingering document dispute as a “compliance” matter that is headed toward a positive resolution.
Rosenstein himself has rejected the Trump allies’ claims.
“We are not in contempt of this Congress and we are not going to be in contempt of this Congress,” he said at a Judiciary Committee hearing last month.
Though the practical impact of a contempt vote would be limited — it might not even pass without leadership support — some Trump allies are hopeful that increased pressure from Congress could prompt Trump himself, or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to take action. Trump has vented about Rosenstein in recent months but has taken no actions to disrupt his stewardship of the Mueller probe.
The Justice Department has emphasized that it has made unprecedented disclosures of sensitive materials to lawmakers, even at times bypassing the historical guardrails for sharing information connected to an ongoing investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed a U.S. attorney to help guide the process and double-check any decisions by the Justice Department and FBI to redact or withhold information.
The Trump allies’ campaign to pressure Rosenstein has played out mostly on Fox News and Twitter, where Trump himself has at times vented about his own Justice Department and called on top leaders to share more documents.
But Trump’s backers in the House worry that time is running short for them to wrench more sensitive material from the Justice Department. After Thursday, the House is in session for only 19 more days until the election. They say the Justice Department could stiff-arm them until then.
If Democrats win the House, they would almost certainly shut down those lines of inquiry.
“Of course they’re running out the clock on us,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a top Trump ally. “It’s why we have been clear that every option is on the table.”
The potential contempt push by Meadows has exacerbated a split among House Republicans, most of whom have defended the Justice Department and Mueller from ongoing attacks.
After previously joining in the complaints about the DOJ’s compliance with document requests, Ryan in recent weeks has downplayed the lingering dispute and said it’s well on the way to being resolved. His position as of Tuesday had not changed, aides said, and he and his leadership team have not endorsed efforts to hold Rosenstein in contempt or impeach him.
Despite Ryan’s posture, Meadows and Jordan — buoyed by a cadre of vocal Trump allies — have clung to their claims that Rosenstein has stood in the way of their efforts to conduct legitimate investigations. They notched a procedural victory last month when the House passed a resolution scolding the Justice Department and demanding access to a large slate of documents by July 6.
Since then, Ryan has expressed more confidence that the Justice Department is complying, but Meadows has insisted that tens of thousands of pages of important documents are still being withheld. Meadows has butted heads with Ryan and other top Republicans over the issue, questioning whether Ryan’s staff was “fully informing” the Freedom Caucus leader about whether the Justice Department was complying with their requests.
The issue may come to a head Wednesday, when Meadows will join five other Republican lawmakers and senior aides to meet with Justice Department officials and discuss remaining document requests. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, who has fielded many of Congress’ document demands, is expected to join other top DOJ officials at the Capitol for the meeting.
Though GOP lawmakers have focused on obtaining documents that were the subject of two congressional subpoenas earlier this year — one from the House Intelligence Committee and one from the House Judiciary Committee — they may lodge fresh inquiries, too. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes also suggested the Justice Department was trying to outlast the Republican-controlled Congress.
“It’s clear what they’re trying to do,” Nunes said in an interview. “They hope Democrats win the House and they don’t have to comply with our requests.”
In recent days, Meadows has suggested that Congress has been denied a tranche of documents that was described to lawmakers by Lisa Page, a former FBI attorney whose anti-Trump text messages in 2016 have fueled the president’s contention that the Russia probe was driven by biased investigators. Meadows said Page pointed lawmakers to additional materials that should have been turned over.