House Republicans sharply escalated their months-long clash with the Justice Department Wednesday evening as a group of 11 conservatives introduced articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The move came after months of criticism aimed at the department — and the Russia investigation in particular — from President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. Mr. Trump has fumed about Mueller’s probe and repeatedly called it a “witch hunt,” a refrain echoed by some of the lawmakers. The impeachment effort is led by North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who talks to President Trump frequently and often defends him to his colleagues.
Meadows said Thursday morning that he would not force an immediate vote on the impeachment resolution, even though he could use procedural maneuvers to do so. The House leaves Thursday afternoon for a five-week recess.
It is unclear whether there would be enough support in the party to pass the resolution, if a vote were held. Republican leaders have not signed on to the effort and are unlikely to back it.
Still, they are likely to use the resolution as leverage.
“It’s very clear that DOJ has to provide the information because the House of Representatives has the responsibility and accountability to oversee,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Meadows, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and the other Republicans who introduced the resolution have criticized Rosenstein and Justice Department officials for not being responsive enough as House committees have requested documents related to the beginning of the Russia investigation and a closed investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The five articles charge Rosenstein of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for failing to produce information to the committees, even though the department has already provided lawmakers with more than 800,000 documents, and of signing off on what some Republicans say was improper surveillance of a Trump adviser.
The resolution also goes directly after Rosenstein for his role in the ongoing Mueller investigation, criticizing him for refusing to produce a memo that outlines the scope of that investigation and questioning whether the investigation was started on legitimate grounds. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump’s campaign was in any way involved.
It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for lawmakers to demand documents that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
In his statement announcing the articles of impeachment, Meadows said Rosenstein’s conduct is “reprehensible.”
“It’s time to find a new deputy attorney general who is serious about accountability and transparency,” Meadows said.
It’s uncertain how many of Meadows’ fellow Republicans agree. Rosenstein, along with FBI Director Christopher Wray, faced dozens of angry Republicans at a House hearing last month. The lawmakers alleged bias at the FBI and suggested the department has conspired against Trump — but many could draw the line at impeachment.
“Impeachment is a punishment, it’s not a remedy,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy said. “If you are looking for documents, then you want compliance, and you want whatever moves you toward compliance.”
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said it is “obvious” leadership does not support the effort.
“They feel like the timing on this is probably not the best,” Walker said.
The impeachment resolution came about two hours after GOP lawmakers met with Justice Department officials about the documents. Meadows said after that meeting that there was still “frustration” with how the department has handled the oversight requests.
Republican leaders, however, have said in recent weeks that they are satisfied with the Justice Department’s progress. Gowdy said after the meeting that he was pleased with the department’s efforts. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also said he is satisfied with progress on the document production.
Meadows heads the conservative Freedom Caucus and has sparred with Ryan on issues such as immigration and federal spending. His open threat of triggering a vote on impeachment — which he can do if he follows a certain set of procedural rules — could help him win concessions on other contentious issues before the House.
Rosenstein has overseen the Russia investigation since last year, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe following reports of his meeting with the Russian ambassador.
Sessions said Thursday he has the “highest confidence” in Rosenstein and described him as “highly capable.”
Democrats have criticized the Republican efforts to pressure the Justice Department, saying they are attempts to undermine Mueller’s investigation.
In a joint statement, the top Democrats on the House Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform and intelligence committees called the move 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.”
So far, the special counsel has charged 32 people and three companies. That includes four Trump campaign advisers and 12 Russian intelligence officers.
Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Adam Schiff of California said Rosenstein “stands as one of the few restraints against the overreaches of the president and his allies in Congress.”
In addition to Meadows and Jordan, the Republican lawmakers who sponsored the impeachment articles are: Reps. Jody Hice of Georgia, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Bill Posey of Florida and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.