House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday he does not support a push by some of his conservative colleagues to impeach Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“No, I do not,” said Ryan (R-Wis.) during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Leaders of the House Freedom Caucus introduced a measure on Wednesday that would remove Rosenstein from his post, blaming him for withholding documents subpoenaed by Republican-led oversight committees.
“I don’t think we should be cavalier with this process or this term,” Ryan told reporters. “I don’t think this rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
He said he also feared the process would tie up the Senate, delaying other Republican priorities such as the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions also defended Rosenstein on Thursday and urged Congress to spend time on other priorities, such as immigration.
"My deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is highly capable. I have the highest confidence in him," he said during an event in Boston.
Although House conservatives have made a major issue of threatening to remove Rosenstein, it’s unclear how much support they have in the chamber, where the move would require a majority vote. As for the Senate, where actually removing Rosenstein would require a two-thirds vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dismissed the idea last week as “pretty far-fetched.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who sponsored the impeachment proposal, did not introduce it as a privileged measure, which would have allowed him to force a vote on the House floor. Because the House is breaking for recess this week, it could not receive a vote until members return in September.
After Ryan’s news conference, Meadows told reporters the Justice Department will have “one last chance to comply.”
“Hopefully what we can do is avoid impeachment, and hopefully avoid contempt, and get the documents,” he said. “But certainly both of those things are on the table and remain on the table.”
Meadows and other conservative Republicans have locked horns with the Justice Department for months, demanding sensitive records involving the investigations into Russian election interference and Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Justice Department officials said they’ve been deluged with the requests, which started with demands from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) for records on secret surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor.
A recent subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee asked for, among other items, all documents provided to the Justice Department Inspector General for its examination of the investigation into Clinton's private email server.
That request led the Justice Department to appoint John Lausch, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, to oversee the process of sorting through roughly 880,000 records. Officials said they had to build a new computer program to search through classified documents, and congressional staff have been continuously visiting the department to view the files.
Meadows previously said he hopes the process will help exonerate Trump.
“When we get these documents, we believe that it will do away with this whole fiasco of what they call the Russian-Trump collusion, because there wasn’t any,” he said on the House floor last month.
Rosenstein, a registered Republican appointed by Trump to the second-highest position in the Justice Department, has been a frequent target of the president’s allies.
“Why are you keeping information from Congress?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) demanded during a hearing last month. Jordan announced his bid for House Speaker on Thursday,
“I am not keeping any information from Congress,” Rosenstein responded.
No subordinate executive branch official has faced impeachment except for William W. Belknap, the U.S. secretary of war, in 1876. He was accused of "criminal disregard for his office" and making official appointments in return for payments, according to the House historian’s office. Belknap was acquitted in the Senate.
Staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.