The draft articles, which one of its authors called a “last resort,” would be unlikely to garner significant support in Congress. But the document could serve as a provocative political weapon for conservatives in their standoff with Mueller and the Justice Department.
Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Trump confidant — finalized the draft in recent days. It came after weeks of disputes with Rosenstein over the Justice Department’s response to congressional requests for documents about the decisions and behavior of federal law enforcement officials working on the Russia investigation and other federal probes, including the investigation into 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Meadows acknowledged the draft in an interview Monday, calling the one-page document “a last resort option, if the Department of Justice fails to respond” to his requests for more information.
“My frustrations about their inability to respond to simple requests could warrant further action,” Meadows said, adding that many of his colleagues are nearing a breaking point with Rosenstein.
The Freedom Caucus, which counts a few dozen House Republicans as members, is one of the more influential blocs in Congress because of its ability to drive debates to the right inside the House and Meadows’s close relationship with the president.
Still, the group’s impeachment draft would face many challenges if it were referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. Republican leaders have kept their distance from calls to remove Rosenstein from office, and Democrats have argued that the GOP’s clashes with the deputy attorney general are little more than a pretext to weaken Mueller’s efforts.
In recent weeks, the Judiciary Committee reached an agreement with the Justice Department over documents it wanted turned over — possibly curbing the appetite of its leaders for a fight.
Impeaching a federal official is an exceedingly difficult endeavor. While House members can refer impeachment articles to the House Judiciary Committee, it is usually up to the committee to debate or draft impeachment legislation that could be brought before the House for a vote. A simple majority is then needed for an article of impeachment to pass and be sent to the U.S. Senate for a trial. Two-thirds of the Senate is necessary to convict and remove the accused from office.
Should the Judiciary Committee decline to take up a proposal, Meadows and his colleagues are considering offering articles of impeachment under what is called a “privileged” resolution, which is when a floor vote is quickly called if the House speaker approves.
The last federal official impeached by the House was federal judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr., who was convicted by the Senate in 2010 on bribery allegations.
A spokesperson for the House Judiciary Committee declined to comment on the draft or the prospect of impeachment proceedings. A Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment on the draft.
Democrats have said that conservative criticisms of Rosenstein are aimed at protecting Trump. But Meadows and others involved in the impeachment discussions say their concerns are serious and should be heard.
The draft criticizes Rosenstein’s disclosure of materials related to a classified surveillance warrant application and subsequent renewals targeting former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Conservatives have alleged the Justice Department acted inappropriately because the department relied on information in its warrant applications that was funded by Clinton’s presidential campaign. The warrants were approved by multiple judges.
The conservatives’ outline, which is divided into eight parts, focuses on Rosenstein and surveillance matters in the first three articles. The document asserts that the veteran Justice Department official “engaged in a pattern of conduct incompatible with the trust and confidence placed in him” in his dealings with Congress and “failed to enforce multiple laws” in the warrant process.
The draft also states that Rosenstein “knowingly provided misleading statements” during congressional testimony about steps the federal government took to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced in March that he will examine the series of applications to surveil Page, along with the department’s relationship with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, whose research was cited in those requests.
The impeachment draft comes at a charged moment within the Republican Party and inside the White House. Trump warned in recent days that he could make sweeping changes at the Justice Department and has repeatedly railed against the special counsel investigation as a “witch hunt” that is baseless and politically motivated.
And it follows months of pressure on Rosenstein, going back to January when Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) called him a “traitor” who should be criminally prosecuted.
“They have a witch hunt against the president of the United States going on, I’ve taken the position — and I don’t have to take this position, maybe I’ll change — that I will not be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump told Fox News in an interview last week. “I will wait till this is over.”
The impeachment draft comes even as other House Republicans have cooled their tensions with Rosenstein, who has largely capitulated to lawmakers’ demands.
In early April, for example, the Justice Department gave House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) access to a redacted document detailing the origin of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, just a day after Nunes had threatened impeachment proceedings. At the time, Nunes publicly thanked Rosenstein for his cooperation, although he said his subpoenas would remain in effect.
Similarly, the Justice Department came to an agreement in recent weeks with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who had been seeking documents on the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server and the firing of Andrew McCabe as deputy FBI director, among other things.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), when asked in April at a news conference about Mueller and Rosenstein, said “they should be allowed to do their jobs.”
But Meadows and others in his wing of the House GOP, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have continued to question Rosenstein and met with him at the Justice Department in mid-April to discuss document production. Meadows and Jordan left the session disappointed and have been talking through what the articles of impeachment could be ever since.
“The Department of Justice’s willingness to comply with legitimate requests are more lip service than actual actions,” Meadows said Monday.