Revised February 8, 2018
Why do some in Congress equate firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with the same importance as firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller? We know the Deputy Attorney General has the power to fire Mueller and the President must go through him to do it, but whoever sits in the Deputy Attorney General's chair also has the ability to influence the outcome of the Mueller investigation even if Mueller is not fired. The Deputy AG has the power to limit the scope of the investigation and to make the decision whether to release the Mueller report in some form to the US public.
Rosenstein's tenure is in jeopardy. CNN quotes President Trump as having said of Rosenstein, “Let's fire him, let's get rid of him,” but was talked out of it. Soon after the Nunes memo came to the public's attention, it was seen by critics as an attempt to create a pretext for the President to fire him. Mr. Trump revived the possibility. When asked if he would fire Rosenstein, Trump answered "you figure it out". In a letter to President Trump, Democratic Congressional leaders wrote "Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ Leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre." They were referring to similar actions Richard Nixon took in Watergate. Even Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader, said : "Rod Rosenstein is doing a fine job."
Another possible temptation for Donald Trump to fire Rod Rosenstein would be to limit the scope of Mueller’s report. The Deputy AG has the power to put the report in a desk drawer if he does not see release of it would be in the public's interest, whatever that means. A new deputy AG could take money laundering off the table or out of the report, for example. Mr. Trump has made it clear that subject was a red line he thought Mueller should not cross.
The game could then become delay, delay, delay until after the November Congressional elections. Firing Rosenstein and replacing him with a Trump loyalist could a result in drawn out court challenges, congressional hearings, and a confirmation vote of the Senate, though it would not halt the investigation since it could continue under Rosenstein's deputy. Donald Trump could also contend his reason try to avoid testifying to the Mueller team or taking the 5th was that the FBI was too politically biased against him. That issue could also be tied up in the Courts past the November 2018 election.
Win or lose the court challenges, resulting delays could benefit the GOP and President Trump. The GOP fear is the 2018 midterms could flip control of the House that has impeachment powers to Democrats. The GOP now has the majority in the House and while they have control, it is realistic to believe they would not impeach their President. Delays would give Donald Trump an opportunity to keep up the morale of his base through November and keep Congress in GOP hands. It might work. In the midst of Watergate, Nixon was re-elected to a second term by a large majority. It was not until after that election he was forced by the courts to release the tapes that his role in the Watergate cover up was revealed to the public and impeachment was begun.
There are two unforeseen circumstances that could change this scenario: the Mueller findings could be
so explosive even House Republicans could not ignore them and would proceed with impeachment or
that Mueller would indict the president and shortcut impeachment proceedings. Whether he has the power to do the latter is an unsettled legal matter and would depend upon a Supreme Court ruling..