The effort to impeach Deputy Attorney General on its face appears to be a test that will determine the future of the party: Tack even further right or move back to the party’s traditional conservative roots.
But the effort and it’s timing also has roots in a interparty power play between Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who today publicly announced his bid for Speaker of the House, and outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, who has so far thwarted the push to impeach. In introducing the articles of impeachment, along with the chair of the far-right Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the day before announcing his run, Jordan painted a stark contrast between himself and the party establishment who he and his allies say are out of touch with the will of the GOP base ahead of the critical midterm elections.
That has some in the party worried that this contentious debate between the far right and moderate wings of the party will come back to bite vulnerable Republicans in November, but it could also further endear Jordan to President Trump and his vocal base.
Mark Walker of North Carolina, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee—the unofficial rivals of the Freedom Caucus—told The Daily Beast that the impeachment articles are “premature” while Speaker Paul Ryan cautioned his party "we should not be cavalier with the process.”
Still, Jordan isn’t looking back, and the debate could drag on for months. That risks either endearing Republicans to the firebrand of a conservative or backfiring and leaving him despised by the very Republicans he needs if he hopes to wield the Speaker’s gavel. While it doesn’t help that Jordan’s under fire for accusations that he helped cover up a sexual abuse scandal while a wrestling coach in his native Ohio, most conservatives have rallied to his side and he still maintains the respect of most in the GOP.
So far only 11 Republicans have signed on to the effort, but they’re a feisty minority who are vowing they’ll never back down. They accuse the deputy AG of “hiding” information from the House Oversight Committee on both the Clinton and Trump investigations conducted by the FBI, redacting too many documents and slow walking other document requests. They say unless Rosenstein provides the requested information, they’re going to move to oust him.
“This isn’t a threat; this is a promise. So ante up,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast.
But the accusations and angst go much deeper than just the GOP’s investigation into Rosenstein. Their case has become a meandering tapestry that includes conspiratorial elements that all point to one bombshell of a conclusion that’s now paraded across much conservative media as fact: Rosenstein tried to cover for and protect Hillary Clinton by launching the investigation into Russian collusion with Trump’s campaign back in 2016.
And they say Rosenstein is a key player in this deep state cabal because he signed off on federal warrants that gave the green light to wiretap senior people in Trump’s close orbit.
“You actually have a deputy attorney general who is acting as the judge, jury and executioner and a witness. You can’t do that. That’s not justice served,” Gosar continued.
Accusations like that, far flung though they seem, have become orthodoxy in corners of the GOP, especially in the world of Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, InfoWars and Fox. To many on the right, the Russia collusion investigation—even though Special Counsel Robert Mueller has now brought indictments against 32 people, including a slew of senior Trump campaign officials—has always been a smokescreen to distract from the real collusion story of the 2016 election.
“Some of these principles involved, including Rod Rosenstein, the pattern says collaboration. If you’re looking for someone who’s collaborating, there was collaboration. There’s collaborations between [former FBI Director] James Comey to trigger a special counsel,” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told The Daily Beast. “Then a special counsel was designed to be Mueller and who made that appointment? Rosenstein. I mean can we believe that Comey and Rosenstein didn’t have this discussion to put Mueller in this way?”
And these far-right wing lawmakers don’t seem like they’ll be content to just impeach Rosenstein or end the Mueller probe. Some say far greater crimes are afoot and they think the entire Russia investigation is an attempt to undermine President Trump, and they’re demanding retribution to protect their party’s standard bearer.
“The entire effort against the president, an effort to obstruct our democratic system, is a crime against the people of the United States,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) told The Daily Beast. “The president won the election. They tried to obstruct it.”
Rohrabacher himself seems to have been pulled into the Mueller investigation, because he at the very least was at a dinner with 29-year-old Maria Butina who has been charged by Mueller with acting as a Russian agent and using the NRA to infiltrate Republican circles.
“I know that this one girl that he just indicted was a gopher and arranged chairs at dinners—that was her area of responsibility,” Rohrabacher continued through periodic laughs. “I was at the dinner. She was sitting down the table. I guess she probably helped arrange the chairs, big deal! It’s clearly some nonsense.”
Democrats, and even some Republicans, fear these articles of impeachment are being brought to give Trump cover for firing senior DOJ officials. And some of those who signed the articles say they wouldn’t mind seeing Trump lop off the heads of his purported enemies, including Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions who the president and many in the GOP blame for this protracted investigation because he recused himself from the case in the first place.
“Would you support the president if he got rid of Sessions and Rosenstein?” the Beast asked Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)—one of Trump’s most loyal lieutenants in Congress who reportedly speaks to the president fairly regularly.
“Yes, I would. It’s time for them to go if they won’t do their job,” Gaetz responded to The Daily Beast without a moment’s hesitation. “I would love for nothing more than the documents to be produced and the witness schedule for interviews to be set. If that were to occur, and Mr. Rosenstein were to recognize the conflicts of interest that are present in the case, we wouldn’t need to impeach anybody.”
Other Republicans are aghast at the thought, and some in the GOP go so far as to call the articles of impeachment a shoddy smokescreen at best.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s a distraction. It’s a way to sideline and end the Mueller investigation prematurely,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told The Daily Beast and another reporter off the House floor. “This is a subterfuge, this is an attempt to kill the Mueller investigation and chip away at all around the edges. It’s nothing more than that.”
While Ros-Lehtinen is retiring, she fears these far-right wing lawmakers are hurting her party well into the future.
“That appeals to just a certain section of our GOP caucus, and I think that politically [it] also puts our moderate, endangered Republicans in a difficult spot,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Let’s help the moderates, the centrists.”
One of those moderate Republicans endangered by these hard ball GOP tactics is Florida’s Carlos Curbelo who also brushed aside the calls for impeachment and likened them to the progressives who have been clamoring to impeach the president.
“It’s a publicity stunt and not dissimilar from radical Democrats who brought impeachment articles [against Trump],” Curbelo told The Daily Beast.
With the House now in recess for more than a month, the impeachment debate will be pushed to the fall and the articles will be brought before the House Judiciary Committee. But these lawmakers, who are being coached and led by Jordan, argue they can still force a vote on them if the DOJ doesn’t give them what they want or if party leaders try to tamp down this mini-rebellion.
The prospect of a protracted impeachment debate against a senior DOJ official is also making some lawmakers groan, but not completely for electoral reasons.
“I think it’s not a wise thing to do,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) told The Daily Beast. He’s the only former FBI agent in Congress, and from that perch he cautions his fellow Republicans to stay in their lanes.
“They have the right to call them to the Hill and ask them these questions,” Fitzpatrick continued. “There was nothing more frustrating to me as an FBI agent than when members of Congress were subpoenaing the same documents, subpoenaing the same witnesses and not allowing us to do our work. Let them do their work, let them report back to us what they find.”
For Jordan, and many of the president’s other restive allies on Capitol Hill, there’s no time to delay. And they aren’t going to let the moderate wing of the GOP have the final word, at least not for now.