House speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday he doesn’t support an effort by a small group of conservatives to impeach deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, likely dooming the endeavor and easing a months-long standoff between House Republicans and the Justice Department.
Mr Ryan said the tussle over document requests between congressional Republicans and Rosenstein, who oversees the federal Trump-Russia investigation, 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,” Mr Ryan said. He also said he is encouraged by progress on the document production.
He made the comments a day after the group of 11 House Republicans sharply escalated the extended clash with the Justice Department by filing articles of impeachment against Mr Rosenstein, who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Their move late Wednesday came after months of criticism aimed at the department — and the Russia investigation in particular — from Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. The president has fumed about Mr Mueller’s probe and has repeatedly called it a “witch hunt,” a refrain echoed by some of the lawmakers.
Mr Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign was involved.
The impeachment effort is led by North Carolina representative Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who talks to Mr Trump frequently and often defends him to colleagues.
After Mr Ryan voiced his disapproval, Mr Meadows acknowledged that he didn’t currently have the votes to pass the impeachment resolution. The House left Thursday afternoon for a five-week recess.
Instead, Mr Meadows said he had discussed a plan with Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte and the No 3 House GOP leader, representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, to vote Mr Rosenstein in contempt of Congress if the department has not produced certain documents by the time the House returns in September.
Mr Meadows said that would give the department “one last chance” before lawmakers moved to hold Mr Rosenstein in contempt or impeach him.
The House speaker’s tone was far different.
“We do not have full compliance, and we have to get full compliance, but we have been making tremendous progress to that point,” Mr Ryan said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended Mr Rosenstein in a speech in Boston, saying he has the “highest confidence” in his top deputy. Mr Rosenstein has overseen the Russia investigation since last year, when Mr Sessions recused himself from the probe following reports of his own meeting with the Russian ambassador.
Asked in May about rumblings that House Republicans might move to impeachment, Mr Rosenstein was defiant.
“I think they should understand by now, the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” he said.