Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein poured cold water on the idea that Russia Special Counsel Robert Mueller will be fired.
“Director Mueller will have the full degree of independence he needs to conduct that investigation appropriately,” Rosenstein said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Rosenstein had been asked about Mueller’s status as special counsel because of an explosive claim made on Monday by Trump friend Christopher Ruddy.
“I think he is considering perhaps terminating the special counsel,” Ruddy, the publisher of Newsmax, said in an interview on PBS.
But as Rosenstein laid out in his testimony, Trump does not have the authority to fire Mueller, who Rosenstein appointed special counsel on May 17. And any decision to remove Mueller, a former FBI director, would have to be for “good cause” — dereliction of duty, misconduct, incapacity or conflict of interest.
Rosenstein testified that he has not seen any evidence of good cause to fire Mueller.
The attorney general, in this case Jeff Sessions, would normally have the authority to fire a special prosecutor, Rosenstein said. But the former Alabama senator recused himself from all Russia-related matters because of his involvement with the Trump campaign, which is at the center of Mueller’s probe.
“Now, as I understand, Mr. Rosenstein, in this matter, you are actually the one exercising hiring and firing authority, because Attorney General Sessions is recused. Is that correct?” New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked Rosenstein.
“Yes, that is correct,” he replied.
“And have you given the special counsel full independence from the Justice Department to conduct his investigation?” Shaheen followed.
“Yes, senator,” Rosenstein responded.
He went on to say that he is “confident” that Mueller “will have sufficient independence” to conduct his investigation, which involves various matters related to Russian active measures during the presidential campaign. Mueller is also looking into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin to influence the election.
Rosenstein then added that it is theoretically possible that the attorney general could fire Mueller. He then noted that in the case of the Russia probe, he is the acting attorney general.
“So nobody else in the department would have the authority to do that, and you have my assurance that we are going to faithfully follow that regulation and Director Mueller will have the full degree of independence he needs to conduct that investigation appropriately,” he said.
The comments by Ruddy highlighted a growing frustration among Trump supporters over the Russia probe. Several Trump allies have begun questioning whether Mueller is fit to lead the investigation. They have noted that is good friends with his successor, James Comey.
Comey, whose May 9 firing precipitated Rosenstein’s decision to hire Mueller, could potentially be a witness in any obstruction of justice case undertaken by the special counsel. Comey testified last week that Trump asked him to back off of an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump denied the claim last week and said he would be willing to talk to Mueller under oath.
Trump supporters also pointed to political donations made by Mueller’s special counsel staff to Democrats as one rationale for firing him. At least four of Mueller’s investigators have contributed to Democratic candidates.
But asked by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham whether campaign donations would rise to the level of good cause to fire Mueller or his staff members, Rosenstein dismissed the idea.
“No, senator it is not a disqualification,” he said.