In a surprise move, Rachel Brand is stepping down as the No. 3 official at the Department of Justice, the New York Times reported on Friday. Brand was next in line to oversee the special counsel’s Russia inquiry after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Brand’s departure could have enormous consequences for Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference and President Donald Trump.
The New York Times has reported that Trump considered firing Rosenstein and Mueller over the summer, a situation that would have been reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of Watergate investigator Archibald Cox. Trump will now get to hand-pick a replacement for Brand, who would step in to take over the investigation should he or she be confirmed by the Senate and should Rosenstein go. It’s also been noted that Rosenstein may ultimately have to recuse himself from the investigation; in that case, he wouldn’t even have to be fired for the Trump selection to take control of the investigation into Trump.
Last March, Trump issued an executive order modifying the line of succession for an acting attorney general, the person who would be in control of Mueller’s inquiry since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. According to that order, under normal procedures, a potential replacement for either Brand or Rosenstein to oversee the Russia inquiry would need Senate confirmation.
Fordham Law professor and occasional Slate contributor Jed Shugerman has laid out the potential orders of succession at the current moment. According to the vacancy statutes, Solicitor General Noel Francisco would be designated by Jeff Sessions as acting attorney general if Rosenstein were to depart, and he’d be followed by the assistant attorneys general. The next in line after that would typically be the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, a position which is being vacated by Dana Boente. Since Boente is leaving that job, it would go to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Robert J. Higdon Jr.
It’s worth noting that the executive order says Trump “retains discretion, to the extent permitted by law” to go around this line of succession to select an acting attorney general on his own. But doing so in an effort to squelch an investigation into himself, his allies, and his family would conceivably be such a transparent effort to subvert the rule of law as to be a political liability even within the Republican Party.
Rosenstein has been personally attacked by Trump. He has come under additional fire recently from critics of the Russia investigation, who have been using a concocted and false narrative from a recently declassified talking points memo to go after the FBI, Mueller, and Rosenstein. When Trump was asked by reporters if he still had confidence in Rosenstein last week, he responded “you figure that one out.”
Brand is reportedly leaving to become the head of global corporate governance at Walmart. The move feels possibly odd for someone who has served in three presidential administrations, cultivated a reputation as a devoted public servant, and who has only been in her current job less than one year.
Politico’s Eliana Johnson reported that someone close to Brand and the administration said she was leaving “because she is very smart, accomplished, and talented, and wants to protect her career.”
Brand worked in the George W. Bush administration and has been considered a rising conservative legal star for more than a decade. It seems very possible that staying in that DOJ position might have ultimately left her facing a very difficult situation career-wise. In a world where Rosenstein was fired and Brand was placed in charge of the Mueller probe, she might have to choose between obeying a Trump order that might upend the rule of law and being fired by Trump. As congressional and mainstream Republicans have moved closer towards Trump’s apparent anti-Mueller, anti-rule of law position, such martyrdom does not sound like it would help her future in the GOP.
Either decision might have done long-term damage to Brand’s future career prospects in any branch of government.
Brand’s move, however, preemptively abdicates that possible decision, quite possibly leaving it to a Trump-approved successor. As Elie Mystal, the executive editor at Above the Law, wrote following the news, it seems as though we might be rolling towards a “slow moving Saturday Night Massacre.”