Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand is the No. 3-ranking official in the Justice Department, which means she would take oversight of the Russia investigation if Rod J. Rosenstein (the department’s No. 2) were removed. Brand is leaving her job after just nine months.

From the moment her decision was announced Friday, the question has been whether those two facts have anything to do with one another. And NBC News is reporting that they do:

Brand grew frustrated by vacancies at the department and feared she would be asked to oversee the Russia investigation, the sources said. . . .
While Brand has largely stayed out of the spotlight, public criticism of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein by President Donald Trump worried Brand that Rosenstein’s job could be in danger.
Should Rosenstein be fired, Brand would be next in line to oversee special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, thrusting her into a political spotlight that Brand told friends she did not want to enter.

The Justice Department is flatly denying this report. “It is clear these anonymous sources have never met Rachel Brand, let alone know her thinking,” spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said. “All of this is false and frankly ridiculous.”

But it’s not a completely ridiculous notion — not given Trump’s relationship with law enforcement and the trajectory of the criticism of that probe. Even before the Nunes memo was released 10 days ago, it was viewed as an attempt to undermine the investigation and possibly serve as a predicate for removing Rosenstein, whom Trump has privately derided as a threat to his presidency and (wrongly) as a “Democrat.” The Nunes memo references five top law enforcement officials who signed off on the allegedly abusive monitoring of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, and four of them are no longer in the same positions; only Rosenstein remains. Trump has also notably tried and failed to remove Mueller, as we found out recently.

All of which makes the prospect of Brand taking oversight of the Russia investigation an increasingly real one. It might never have happened, but the events of recent weeks made clear it was a distinct possibility. And given that, it’s difficult to dismiss as “frankly ridiculous” the notion that it was on Brand’s mind.

Other friends have said Brand simply had a job offer that was too good to pass up at Walmart. That’s plausible (although nine months is still a very brief tenure, and it’s probable someone in her job would have had lots of great opportunities upon returning to the private sector). The NBC report also mentions those close to her suggesting she’s upset that key vacancies beneath her haven’t been filled. That’s extremely plausible.

But Brand had to know that stepping down now would lead people to ask these questions, especially after fewer than nine months, and already some are criticizing the decision (as reported by NBC). Here’s former Obama-era Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller:

What we can say with some clarity at this point is that people who would stand in Trump’s way do have a tendency to step aside. Trump’s most vocal critics in the Senate just happen to have been the first two GOP senators to announce their retirements, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Political pressure applied by Trump may also have contributed to Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s decision to step down months earlier than he had been planning. Trump has made Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s life so miserable over his recusal in the Russia probe that Sessions offered to quit.

The thing about demanding loyalty and attacking anybody who runs afoul of you is that it sends a pretty strong signal to others who would find themselves on your bad side. If you are Brand and you see what’s happened to basically every leading law enforcement figure tied to the Russia probe, you pretty much know it wouldn’t be a fun experience for you.

From there, it’s about whether individuals who find themselves in the line of Trump’s fire are willing to undergo personal attacks and having one-third of the country think they are part of a conspiracy against the president — to have their character impugned by elected officials and the conservative media. That’s simply the price of doing business, and anybody who takes or holds jobs in Trump’s FBI or Justice Department has to know it by now.

The danger is that this strategy by Trump might force out the same principled people who would stand up to him from those positions of influence, making way for people who are a little more, well, flexible. And if that’s what has actually happened here or in any other case, then Trump will have won — at least in part.