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If Rod Rosenstein leaves, don’t expect Congress to step in to protect the Russia probe

Senate Republicans don’t want President Trump to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. They just won't protect Mueller if Trump decides to fire him. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s job is safe for at least the next few days. But special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s job may not be any safer after Washington thought for a few brief hours Monday that Rosenstein had resigned.

Rosenstein is the one who oversees Mueller’s work, but we know that over the past year, President Trump has moved to fire Mueller — and end the Russia probe encircling him — at least twice. So far, Congress has refused to pass legislation making it illegal for Trump to fire Mueller on his own, even though some Republicans have championed it and one Senate committee even advanced it.

Now that Rosenstein’s job is in serious jeopardy after reports that he suggested secretly taping the president or invoking the 25th Amendment to oust him, there are plenty of reasons to believe Congress still won’t step in. Like:

The top Senate Republican has said it’s unnecessary: In April, as a Senate committee was advancing legislation to protect Mueller, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was extremely firm that the bill wasn’t going anywhere.

"This is a piece of legislation that’s not necessary, in my judgment,” McConnell told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto. “I’m the one who decides what we take to the floor. That’s my responsibility as the majority leader. And we will not be having this on the floor of the Senate.”

His reason then seemed to be: Why antagonize the president if you don’t have to? “Just as a practical matter, even if we passed it, why would he sign it?” McConnell told Cavuto.

That reasoning probably still holds for McConnell, especially just weeks before an election in which Republicans' majorities in Congress are at stake. Trump has proved remarkably adept at turning the Republican base against lawmakers he doesn’t like.

It would be the worst possible timing: Speaking of November elections, Republicans have spent the past year and a half of the Trump administration trying not to rock the boat too much with him. Other than forcing Trump to sign Russia sanctions into law last summer, the Republican-controlled Congress has mostly gone along with Trump even as he pushes trade, immigration and diplomatic policies with which they don’t agree.

There’s a reason for that. Republicans have calculated that cozying up to Trump as much as they can is the best thing for the health of the party right now. They have been able to pass a tax bill and seat more conservative judges, and if they keep control of Congress next year, they could even tackle entitlements like Social Security and Medicaid.

To confront Trump now could signal to the Republican base that the party isn’t in line with the president, right before the midterm elections. And it could damage future Republican efforts to play nice with the mercurial president because, as we’ve seen with the Mueller investigation, Trump doesn’t take confrontations about Russia lightly.

What will Congress's last straw be on Trump?

There are a number of Republicans in Congress who want Rosenstein fired: There is a group of a dozen or so House conservatives who are trying to help Trump get out from under the Russia investigation. They’ve filed impeachment articles against Rosenstein, made dubious connections between Rosenstein and the origins of the Russia probe, urged Trump to release related classified documents over the FBI’s wishes and attacked the Russia investigation with vigor on cable news.

Some House conservatives want to dig into reports that Rosenstein suggested secretly recording the president by forcing him to testify to Congress or by forcing the FBI to hand over the memos from former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, on which the recent reports about Rosenstein were partially based.

This faction probably couldn’t stop a bill to protect Mueller if the rest of Congress was united behind one. But they can be plenty noisy about it and, most crucially, they seem to have Trump on their side.

Rosenstein and Wray's testimony undermined GOP efforts to undermine the Russia probe

Rosenstein might not go anywhere: Trump and Rosenstein are meeting Thursday, and as of Monday afternoon, it’s unclear whether Rosenstein’s resignation will be accepted or Trump will push him out.

But if Rosenstein does go, Trump could argue he has a reason. His No. 2 at the Justice Department suggested wiring people who meet with the president! Even if, as Rosenstein’s defenders claim, he made the comment in jest, it suggests he had some concerns about the president’s leadership. That’s a solid reason for any president to fire a top official, Trump could say. And that would make it even less likely a Republican-controlled Congress would step in to stop it.

Eleven House Republicans filed paperwork to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein on July 25, illustrating a divide in the party. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)