For the second time in just eight weeks, Donald Trump has issued an Executive Order changing the line of succession at the Department of Justice. He keeps changing the hierarchy based on office, not by naming the names of specific people – but in both instances it’s directly impacted who may end up in charge of prosecuting Trump’s Russia investigation. And this latest move suggests he may now be attempting to remove U.S. Attorney Dana Boente from the Russia scandal.
Trump’s first Executive Order on the matter was issued on February 9th (source: whitehouse.gov). It ensured that if Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to vacate his office or recuse himself from a case, those duties would be assumed by the “United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia” – in other words Dana Boente.
Subsequently, Sessions did recuse himself from the Russia investigation after he was caught having lied to the Senate under oath about his own meetings with the Russian Ambassador. Accordingly, Dana Boente became the decision maker for the Trump-Russia investigation. But then FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20th that he had been authorized by the Department of Justice to publicly disclose that the FBI is currently investigating the Donald Trump campaign and Russia. If Trump moved Dana Boente up in the DOJ line of succession with the expectation that Boente would have prevented such a thing from happening, then the move clearly didn’t work.
Now Trump has issued a second Executive Order on the matter, dated March 31st (source: whitehouse.gov). It keeps Boente’s Eastern Virginia office in its current position in the hierarchy. But just below Boente, the “United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois” has now been swapped out for the “United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.”
As it turns out, the North Carolina office is currently occupied by John Stuart Bruce (source: Justice Department), an Obama appointee who was never confirmed and still holds the position in an acting capacity. Under federal law, that office will become vacant about a month from now (source: Cornell University Law School), meaning that Donald Trump can appoint anyone he likes.
The upshot: Trump just changed the law such that he’ll get to hand pick anyone he likes to be next in the line of succession directly under Dana Boente at the DOJ. Considering that Boente allowed the FBI to publicly confirm the Trump-Russia investigation, it does not appear that Boente has been willing to do Trump’s bidding. This raises the question of whether Trump plans to fire Boente once he appoints someone to the Eastern North Carolina office who can then take over the Trump-Russia investigation.
The complicating factor in all of this is that Donald Trump is still attempting to get Rod Rosenstein confirmed as his Deputy Attorney General, who would then inherit the Trump-Russia investigation no matter what the DOJ order of succession is. But Rosenstein’s confirmation has gone extraordinarily slowly in the Senate, as leaders of both parties have held it up due to skepticism over Trump’s intentions (source: Politico). The Republicans did finally advance Rosentein out of committee two days ago (source: Baltimore Sun), but his full Senate confirmation could still take some time and may be fought ferociously by the Democrats.
And now it appears Trump is indeed looking to install someone favorable in the Eastern North Carolina office to take over the Trump-Russia investigation if he fires Dana Boente before Rod Rosenstein is confirmed. There is little other plausible explanation for why Trump would issue an Executive Order whose purpose is to elevate an office in the DOJ hierarchy that’s about to become vacant. Consensus among the legal experts we’ve consulted this evening is that this latest move by Trump could be challenged in court if it becomes necessary. Contribute to Palmer Report
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report