With Paul Ryan retiring as House speaker, the race is on to assuage Trump and secure his support. One key powerbroker is targeting the Mueller probe, writes.
As the investigation into any collusion between Russia and the election of US president Donald Trump heads towards the finish line, it is being caught up in a power struggle between Trump’s fellow Republicans battling it out for the top job in Congress.
It’s a prize worth fighting for because whoever wins becomes speaker of the House of Representatives and would then be the third most powerful politician in America after the president and vice-president.
The battle for the post came into sharp focus on July 25 when Congressman Mark Meadows, the key powerbroker in the contest, spearheaded an effort that would effectively impede Robert Mueller’s Russia probe by ousting Rod Rosenstein, the man who is supervising it.
Meadows, a key Trump ally and leader of the hardline Freedom Caucus within the Republican party, knows the president wants the probe to end. He also knows that trying to fire Mueller would be a step too far. So he was apparently hoping to do the next best thing —ousting Rosenstein and getting someone in the post who might be more willing to rein in Mueller.
It’s also a way for Meadows to burnish his credentials with the Trump White House and expand his powerbase and influence in Congress where he is determined to see an unshakable conservative succeeding retiring speaker Paul Ryan.
And that conservative could yet be Meadows’ own lieutenant and Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, an Ohio Congressman who announced on July 26, just a day after co-sponsoring the impeachment articles against Rosenstein, that he would join the race for speaker.
Not surprisingly, Meadows came out immediately to back him, although most members of congress had been only vaguely aware of the announcement as they rushed out of Washington at the start of a five-week congressional recess.
Members of Congress also know that Jordan’s candidacy will not be plain sailing. In recent weeks, Jordan has also been caught up in a sex-abuse scandal at Ohio State University. He worked as a former assistant wrestling coach at the university from 1986 to 1994, when a team doctor was allegedly sexually abusing wrestlers and other athletes. Several former wrestlers have accused Jordan of being aware and doing nothing, but Jordan says he didn’t know about the alleged abuse.
The two main contenders for the speaker’s job until Jordan’s announcement were the party’s majority leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy of California, who is the great-grandson of Corkman Jeremiah McCarthy; and the majority whip, Italian-American Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who gained international attention after he was shot at a congressional baseball practice last summer.
Jordan’s bid could be a major threat to McCarthy, who seemed to have been favoured over Scalise by the Freedom Caucus because some members didn’t appear to consider Scalise conservative enough.
The battle for the post was triggered when Ryan, another Irish-American, announced his retirement back in April and endorsed McCarthy to succeed him. McCarthy has also had ambitions for the job in the past.
But many undecided Republicans may not show their hand until they see whether Trump will make an endorsement in the race.
Indeed, as the battle for the job plays out it could have a major impact on the future of Trump’s presidency — and that is where Mark Meadows’ long-shot move to impeach Rod Rosenstein comes in.
When Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia probe back in March, after he was discovered to have met with Sergey
Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US during the presidential campaign, he appointed his deputy, Rosenstein, to oversee the investigation.
The articles of impeachment against Rosenstein were introduced on July 25 by Meadows and Jordan, along with nine co-sponsors.
They charge that Rosenstein has a conflict of interest in Mueller’s probe, stating that he is a “witness” who could be called to testify in the investigation into potential surveillance abuse since he signed off on an FBI surveillance renewal application to wiretap Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign.
The impeachment charge states:
Deputy attorney general Rosenstein’s failure to recuse himself in light of this inherent conflict of interest and failure to recommend the appointment of a second special counsel constitute dereliction of duty. Wherefore, Rod Rosenstein, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office
Democrats characterised the articles of impeachment as “a direct attack on the special counsel’s investigation [of the Trump campaign]”.
“It is a panicked and dangerous attempt to undermine an ongoing criminal investigation in an effort to protect President Trump as the walls are closing in around him and his
associates,” read a joint statement from the top Democrats on the House judiciary, oversight and government
reform, and intelligence committees, Congressmen Jerrold Nadler of New York, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, and Adam Schiff of California.
“The resolution to impeach deputy attorney general Rosenstein is the newest in a long series of Republican attempts to undermine, discredit, and disrupt the Mueller investigation, even as the special counsel and his team have filed 30 indictments and secured five guilty pleas from a group including four Trump campaign officials and members of Vladimir Putin’s military intelligence force,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois and member of the oversight committee.
If they’re actually serious, the House leadership should bring this resolution to a vote immediately. It’s a total media stunt to file articles of impeachment at seven in the evening immediately before Congress leaves for a five-week recess. If deputy attorney general Rosenstein’s actions are so egregious, how can House Republicans possibly justify letting him stay in his job for another five weeks?
Not all Republicans were happy with Meadows’ move. Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina implied the move was an attempt by Meadows to boost his profile and powerbroker status.
Sessions, the attorney general, also defended his second-in-command.
“My deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is highly capable. I have the highest confidence in him,” Sessions said last week.
However, the move has little real chance of endangering Rosenstein’s position because the process of impeachment is slow and cumbersome and there is little indication that a majority of Republicans have an appetite for it. Meadows’ group would need a majority in the House and two-thirds support in the Senate to secure impeachment.
So it does seem that the move is primarily about burnishing credentials with Trump, as he contemplates whom to back in the race. Indeed, as the week wore on, even Meadows himself was apparently beginning to backpedal on the whole idea.
He was still leaving impeachment on the table, he insisted before leaving Washington, but when Congress returns from its recess he said he might instead move a contempt process against Rosenstein rather than impeachment, adding that “both options remain there”.
Then again, if Democrats wrestle back control of the House in congressional midterm elections in November, Rosenstein’s job will be secure — and the vacancy for a Republican speaker will become a vacancy instead for a Democratic speaker.
And, if that happens, there may be a whole new impeachment battle with a whole new cast of characters!