By MARY CLARE JALONICK and CHAD DAY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday he does not support an effort by a group of 11 conservative lawmakers to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official who oversees the special counsel’s Trump-Russia investigation.
At a news conference, Ryan said Rosenstein’s back-and-forth with congressional Republicans over document requests doesn’t rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that could warrant impeachment under the Constitution.
“I don’t think we should be cavalier with this process or with this term,” Ryan said. He also said he is encouraged by progress on the document production.
Ryan made the comments a day after the group of House Republicans sharply escalated their months-long clash with the Justice Department by filing articles of impeachment against Rosenstein.
Their move late Wednesday came after months of criticism aimed at the department — and the Russia investigation in particular — from President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. Trump has fumed about Mueller’s probe and has repeatedly called it a “witch hunt,” a refrain echoed by some of the lawmakers. The impeachment effort is led by North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who talks to Trump frequently and often defends him to colleagues.
Meadows said Thursday morning that he would not try to force an immediate vote on the impeachment resolution, even though he could use procedural maneuvers to do so. The House leaves Thursday afternoon for a five-week recess.
It is unclear whether there would be enough support in the party to pass his resolution if a vote were held. In addition to Ryan, Republican leaders have not signed on to the effort and are unlikely to back it.
Still, some leaders could use the resolution as leverage.
“It’s very clear that DOJ has to provide the information because the House of Representatives has the responsibility and accountability to oversee,” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Meadows, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and the other Republicans who introduced the resolution have criticized Rosenstein and Justice Department officials as not being responsive enough as House committees have requested documents related to the beginning of the Russia investigation and a closed investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The five articles would charge Rosenstein with “high crimes and misdemeanors” for failing to produce information to the committees, though the department has provided lawmakers with more than 800,000 documents, and of signing off on what some Republicans say was improper surveillance of a Trump adviser.
The resolution also goes directly after Rosenstein for his role in the ongoing Mueller investigation, criticizing him for refusing to produce a memo that outlines the scope of that investigation and questioning whether the investigation was started on legitimate grounds. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump’s campaign was in any way involved.
It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for lawmakers to demand documents that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Rosenstein, along with FBI Director Christopher Wray, faced dozens of angry Republicans at a House hearing last month. The lawmakers alleged bias at the FBI and suggested the department has conspired against Trump — but many could draw the line at impeachment.
“Impeachment is a punishment, it’s not a remedy,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy said. “If you are looking for documents, then you want compliance, and you want whatever moves you toward compliance.”
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said it is “obvious” leadership does not support the effort.
“They feel like the timing on this is probably not the best,” Walker said.
The impeachment resolution came about two hours after GOP lawmakers met with Justice Department officials about the documents. Meadows said after that meeting that there was still “frustration” with how the department has handled the oversight requests.
Republican leaders, however, have said in recent weeks that they are satisfied with the Justice Department’s progress. Gowdy said after the meeting that he was pleased with the department’s efforts.
Meadows heads the conservative Freedom Caucus and has sparred with Ryan on issues such as immigration and federal spending. His open threat of triggering a vote on impeachment — which he can do if he follows a certain set of procedural rules — could help him win concessions on other contentious issues before the House.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said she had no comment on the articles of impeachment. Rosenstein has overseen the Russia investigation since last year, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe following reports of his meeting with the Russian ambassador.
Democrats have criticized the Republican efforts to pressure the Justice Department, saying they are attempts to undermine Mueller’s investigation.
In a joint statement, the top Democrats on the House Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform and intelligence committees called the move a “panicked and dangerous attempt to undermine an ongoing criminal investigation in an effort to protect President Trump as the walls are closing in around him and his associates.”
So far, the special counsel has charged 32 people and three companies. That includes four Trump campaign advisers and 12 Russian intelligence officers.
Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Adam Schiff of California said Rosenstein “stands as one of the few restraints against the overreaches of the president and his allies in Congress.”
In addition to Meadows and Jordan, the Republican lawmakers who sponsored the impeachment articles are: Reps. Jody Hice of Georgia, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Bill Posey of Florida and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.