The Mueller Investigation Is Bigger Than Rod Rosenstein
Even if he got fired, a replacement dead set on shutting down the investigation would find it nearly impossible to pull off.
By Asha Rangappa
Only a little over two weeks ago, in the wake of reports about remarks the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had made about the president’s fitness for office and an offer to secretly tape conversations with him, his job appeared to be on the line — along with the fate of the Russia investigation led by the special counsel Robert Mueller.
On Monday, President Trump said he has no plans to fire him, and many Americans may have breathed a sigh of relief. But while it’s true that his departure would have been cause for worry for those who seek to protect the independence and integrity of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, at this stage of the inquiry, even a replacement dead set on shutting it down would find such a maneuver nearly impossible to accomplish — and with each day that goes by, it becomes even harder.
To begin with, there is no such thing as a single “Russia investigation.” The F.B.I. pursues cases against individuals and organizations, not topics — this allows each case to have the flexibility to go in the direction the evidence leads, regardless of what happens with other, related cases. After the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, “Pentbomb” was the umbrella name for hundreds of discrete cases on the hijackers, their networks and Al Qaeda.
Further, existing cases spawn new cases. This is especially true of counterintelligence and conspiracy investigations, where every newly discovered contact or association of a subject already under investigation could form the basis of a new case. That’s why the current Russia investigation, originally referred to in the F.B.I. as “Crossfire Hurricane,” isn’t just a single case on Russian election meddling. Rather, at this stage it is a spider web of tens or dozens of cases on intelligence officers, their agents and individuals and organizations helping Russia that are investigated independently, cross-referencing pertinent information to other cases as necessary.
Nor is an investigation of this magnitude limited to a single office. Each case generates leads — threads of inquiry, like an interview or surveillance of an intelligence officer who might be traveling to another state — that span the country. When this happens, F.B.I. agents don’t hop on a plane. Rather, the “home” office for the case (called the “office of origin”) will send a lead to the field office with jurisdiction over that area.
Mr. Mueller’s investigation is more closely held than most, but its tentacles have already clearly spread to other field offices — consider the investigation against President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, run out of the Southern District of New York office, or the plea deal of a California man, Richard Pinedo, who assisted Russia in executing its disinformation campaign on social media. Field offices are evaluated in part based on their success in following through on leads and making cases that result in arrests and convictions. No case agent worth their salt would remain quiet if their cases were closed in the face of a continuing threat. To “shut down” the investigation at this point would require not just a face-off with Mr. Mueller but also with special agents in charge of multiple field offices with a vested interest in seeing their responsibilities through, and possibly even a battle with the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray.
Finally, many of the most critical parts of the Russia investigation have already entered the judicial system. Mr. Mueller has already indicted numerous individuals and companies and secured several convictions. Five members of the Trump campaign have pleaded guilty to federal charges and are actively cooperating with prosecutors. Grand juries have seen evidence, judges have signed off on warrants, and there are likely subpoenas and indictments waiting in the wings. Whatever happens now, there is no doubt that the F.B.I. has already collected hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence in the form of documents, interviews, electronic surveillance and foreign intelligence shared by our allies that are stored in the F.B.I.’s tamper-proof system and cannot be destroyed.
This isn’t to say that a Rosenstein replacement couldn’t do any damage — he could try to starve the investigation of resources, for example, or withhold approval for investigative steps that have yet to be taken. But considering that the potential replacements for Mr. Rosenstein — Solicitor General Noel Francisco or the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven Engel — have very little experience in counterintelligence and criminal matters, they would face an uphill battle justifying those decisions against seasoned prosecutors and in the face of evidence warranting otherwise.
Under the special counsel regulations, moreover, any such decision would be required to be reported to Congress. With the precedent set by Devin Nunes on the House Intelligence Committee, if Congress changes hands, it’s going to be very difficult for the president to try to block obvious attempts to obstruct justice from seeing the light of day.
The wheels of justice are already in motion, and it would take someone willing to take a fall for the president to try to stop it.
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