Two high-profile members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus introduced articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday.
Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan have for months threatened Rosenstein, who has overseen the Department of Justice’s Russia investigation since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, with the controversial move as they accused the Department of Justice of withholding documents.
“The DOJ is keeping information from Congress. Enough is enough. It’s time to hold Mr. Rosenstein accountable for blocking Congress’s constitutional oversight role,” Jordan said in a statement.
“The stonewalling over this last year has been just as bad or worse than under the Obama administration. Multiple times we’ve caught DOJ officials hiding information from Congress, withholding relevant documents, or even outright ignoring congressional subpoenas,” Meadows added.
Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said the department had no comment. Asked in early May about reports that House Republicans had drafted articles of impeachment, Rosenstein said then that it would not “affect the way we do our job.”
“I can tell you that there are people who have been making threats privately and publicly against me for quite some time, and I think they should understand by now, the Department of Justice is not gonna be extorted. We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law,” Rosenstein said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office did not say what Ryan thinks of the move when BuzzFeed News inquired about the articles of impeachment.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But asked about the efforts last week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not denounce them.
“The president would like to see the documents turned over,” Sanders said. Asked whether the White House still has confidence in Rosenstein, she answered, “When the president no longer has confidence in someone, his administration will let you know.”
Meadows and Jordan have nine conservative cosponsors on the articles of impeachment. A House GOP aide told BuzzFeed News in an email that the “way it’s being handled at this point is not privileged,” meaning that the articles of impeachment would not force a vote.
But the aide added “that could change,” and Jordan’s office confirmed that the option is still on the table.
Even before they were introduced, there was disagreement among Republicans about whether articles of impeachment were the appropriate route. Earlier this month, Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he would not support the move.
Asked Wednesday whether he believed Rosenstein should be impeached, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he did not. “The answer is no,” Graham said. “I don't think he should be.”
The impeachment articles cover a litany of Republican complaints about Rosenstein’s tenure as the Justice Department's second-ranking official. But the driving force behind conservative calls for Rosenstein to step down or be removed from office has been tension over the production of documents.
Republicans have sought a wide range of Justice Department materials related to the investigation into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as well as the Russia investigation. They have accused the Justice Department and the FBI of dragging their feet and missing deadlines to turn over documents, and of over-redacting to conceal information from Congress.
The Justice Department has said it has made every effort to meet lawmakers’ demands, but that some of the information sought was properly redacted in order to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations. In April, Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray tapped Chicago US Attorney John Lausch to oversee the production of documents to the House Judiciary Committee about the Clinton email investigation and other matters, and Wray had previously said he was doubling the number of staff working to fulfill congressional requests.
Republicans are also pointing to Rosenstein’s role in signing off on one of four applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The Justice Department last week released heavily redacted copies of the search warrant applications, which detailed why investigators suspected the Russian government was attempting to recruit Page to work on its behalf. Page has not been charged with a crime.
Republicans have questioned the legitimacy of the warrant applications, noting that investigators included information from a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele without telling the court that Steele's work was funded in part by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign. But the applications also showed that investigators had other reasons to suspect Page’s ties to Russia, and Democrats have accused Republicans of taking selective pieces of the applications out of context.
The dossier was first published by BuzzFeed News last January after security officials had briefed both then-president Barack Obama and Trump about it.
The articles of impeachment filed Wednesday characterize the decision to sign off on the warrant application as “potentially improper,” and accuse Rosenstein of failing to provide proper oversight of the process. Republicans contend that with Rosenstein’s role in the surveillance process under scrutiny, a second special counsel should be appointed in his stead.
The call for a second special counsel — the first being Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the Russia investigation — is a common thread throughout the impeachment document. Sessions and Rosenstein have resisted calls from congressional Republicans to appoint one, although the attorney general appointed Utah US Attorney John Huber to oversee a review of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant process last fall to determine if a second special counsel appointment was needed.
At least one Democrat was quick to denounce the introduction of the articles of impeachment. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, accused the Republicans of filing the document in “bad faith” and called it a demonstration of the “extraordinary lengths to which House Republicans will go to protect Trump.”
“History will record these Members as willing accomplices in the most serious threat to the rule of law in a generation,” Schiff tweeted.
In a joint statement later Wednesday, Schiff, as well as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the ranking House Judiciary Committee member, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, called the articles of impeachment “a direct attack” on Mueller's investigation.
“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,” the statement said.
“It is certainly not, as its sponsors claim, a principled attempt to conduct oversight of the Department of Justice, because House Republicans have refused to conduct oversight of any aspect of the Trump Administration, except where the inquiry might distract from their failed agenda, undermine law enforcement, and serve the interests of President Trump,” the three Democrats added.
The Freedom Caucus is a conservative group that has been a thorn in Republican leadership’s side for years, and has in the past been able to gather enough support to block legislation on the floor. While the group is often on the far-right end of the spectrum of Republican politics, it frequently aligns with President Donald Trump.
The House adjourns Thursday for an August recess, with members departing Washington to campaign in their home districts during their time off.
Tarini Parti and Emma Loop contributed reporting.