Rachel Brand, the third-highest ranking official at the Justice Department, and the first woman to serve as associate attorney general, plans to step down, according to people familiar with her decision. This is a resignation that comes at a moment of intense political scrutiny for the department, including some harsh criticism from President Donald Trump.
Brand, 44, who has only been in her Senate-confirmed position for nine months, would have been in line to take over the supervision of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s Russia investigation if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the department’s No. 2 official, was fired by Mr. Trump or recused himself from the matter.
Brand is leaving the Justice Department for a job as general counsel in the private sector, the people familiar with the decision said. Her departure was first reported by The New York Times.
The possibility of Brand being thrust into the Russia investigation has increased in recent weeks as Rosenstein has come under political attack from Republicans for supporting the renewal of a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign adviser.
“I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” Mr. Trump said last week when he was asked about the release of a memo from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee claiming abuses in the Russia investigation.
“A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that,” Mr. Trump said.
When Mr. Trump was asked by a reporter whether he was then more likely to fire Rosenstein, and whether he had confidence in him, Mr. Trump replied, “You figure that one out.”
Mr. Trump has also publicly attacked the FBI, which is a component of the Justice Department. And he has blasted his attorney general for recusing himself in the Russia investigation and turning it over to Rosenstein, who then appointed Mueller as special counsel. He said he wouldn’t have appointed Sessions attorney general if he knew he was going to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
Last summer on Twitter, Mr. Trump called Sessions “beleaguered” and “very weak, and at a news conference in the Rose Garden said he was “disappointed in Sessions.”
With Brand’s departure, Solicitor General Noel Francisco is next in line at the Justice Department to oversee the Russia investigation after Rosenstein.
Brand has kept a very low profile at the department, but in December she wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post defending the renewal of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits the National Security Agency to collect foreign intelligence on U.S. soil without individualized warrants.
“To keep us safe, our intelligence agencies must be able to “connect the dots” between the various pieces of information the government already lawfully possesses,” Brand wrote. “In reauthorizing Section 702, Congress must not forget the lessons we learned from 9/11.” The law was reauthorized in January.
Last week, Brand headed up an all-day summit on human trafficking at the Justice Department where she told a packed room that “combatting this evil is one of our top priorities at the Justice Department.” She also introduced Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in turn praised Brand for her “strong leadership as our third in command at the department.”
The news that Brand is leaving came to a surprise to many people who know her. The Federalist Society just announced Friday that Brand, as associate attorney general, is scheduled to speak next week at a Washington chapter lunch.
The daughter and granddaughter of Dutch dairy farmers in Iowa, Brand has been praised for her deep knowledge of the Justice Department. She was previously President George W. Bush’s assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy, which develops and implements the department’s significant policy initiatives.
Brand has one of the department’s more politically challenging jobs, managing the lawyers who litigate civil issues, including Mr. Trump’s travel ban as well as civil rights, environmental and antitrust cases.