The Special Counsel has set in motion a process that firing Rosenstein can’t stop.
The career of Rod Rosenstein has, along with controversies surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, dominated the news cycle in recent days. First came the New York Times story about Rosenstein suggesting wearing a wire to record President Donald Trump and generally commenting on the president’s inadequacy in office. Then, Rosenstein was the subject of a flurry of news reports. First, the country learned that he had been fired. Or, perhaps, he was about to resign. Then, he was going to meet with the president to learn he had been fired. But eventually, it became clear that he was not being fired yet but was on thin ice.
Every ebb and flow of these news stories hinted at the true significance of the Rosenstein story: its connection to the Mueller investigation. Most politicians and pundits believe that Rosenstein is the last barrier in the Justice Department stopping Trump from firing Mueller. A CNN report Monday noted, “Whoever takes charge of the Mueller investigation could decide that it’s time to wind down the probe or dismiss Mueller altogether… they would have the power to reject indictments and other investigative requests…” In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern noted that Rosenstein’s likely successor, Noel Francisco, would undermine the Mueller investigation with his views on executive power and animosity towards the Mueller investigation. With Francisco as stated successor, Stern wrote, “Rosenstein[’s] resignation would be terrific news for Donald Trump.”
The firing of Rod Rosenstein would certainly cause problems for the Mueller investigation. Since no one can replace Robert Mueller, Trump critics are understandably concerned about his future and have planned mass protests in case he is fired. But this episode comes much too late in the Mueller investigation to change its outcome. In many ways, Mueller’s work has already been completed.
The two main purposes of the Mueller investigation are clear. One purpose was judicial: the investigation of hacking of the Democratic Party and ads designed to influence the 2016 election, as well as American connections to the Russian hackers. Mueller has already charged over a dozen Russian nationals with crimes related to these actions. In court filings, he has described numerous crimes ranging from money laundering to conspiracy against the United States. He has secured convictions of Paul Manafort and others working closely with the Russians. Mueller has won legitimacy for his work and delivered cases to numerous jurisdictions. He has convicted several of the highest ranking members of the Trump campaign. If he is fired tomorrow, his judicial accomplishments will be carried on by attorneys in the Southern District of New York (which has proven to be immune to Trump’s efforts at meddling) and the state of New York. New York Attorneys General have spent much of the past year investigating and chasing Mueller’s breadcrumbs. These efforts would only intensify if Mueller were fired.
The other purpose is political: demonstrate that the Trump campaign was (or was not) closely connected to the Russians, with a preponderance of evidence, so that the nation’s elected officials will work together to impeach and remove the president. This purpose, the most important to many anti-Trump pundits around the country, has most likely already been achieved as well. The key is the Mueller report, the book-length document that the Special Counsel will produce at the end of his investigation laying out its findings and their implications.
Mark Joseph Stern argued that this report is in peril with the potential Rosenstein firing. But anyone who has looked at the Mueller investigation, at the discipline of his team and his efforts to preclude federal pardons, knows that this is not true. Multiple copies have most likely been made and disseminated to numerous people in a number of formats. The importance of such a report guarantees that it will eventually see the light of day. There is no Trump action, no Department of Justice regulation, and no Acting Attorney General powerful enough to prevent that report from being released. The only question remaining is exactly how expansive the report will be and how damning it will be to the Trump administration.
The firing of Robert Mueller might have been effective in the first few months of the investigation, when the Special Counsel had not secured any guilty verdicts or had enough time to produce a coherent, well-researched report. But that moment has long passed. Now, Mueller has a legacy of criminal convictions and the draft of a report that can be released in the case of his firing. An immediate firing will only lead to a slightly weaker report and a potentially more difficult impeachment or removal process. Trump can fire Mueller if he wants to. But if he can’t stop the convictions or the report, is firing Mueller worth the risk?