President Donald Trump is considering pushing to have a special counsel appointed to advance a federal tax investigation into the son of president-elect Joe Biden, setting up a potential showdown with incoming acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen.
Mr Trump – allegedly angry that outgoing Attorney General William Barr did not publicly announce the ongoing, two-year investigation into Hunter Biden – has consulted on the matter with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and outside allies.
This is according to several Trump administration officials and Republicans close to the White House who spoke to The Associated Press.
Beyond appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the younger Biden, the sources said Mr Trump is interested in having another special counsel appointed to look into his own claims of election fraud. But if he expects his newly named acting attorney general to go further than Mr Barr did on either matter, he could end up quickly disappointed.
Mr Barr on Monday evening announced that he will resign, effective next week, revealing his plans about a week after Hunter Biden publicly disclosed that he was under investigation related to his finances. It is generally Justice Department policy not to disclose investigations that are in progress, although the subjects of those investigations can.
Mr Rosen, the deputy attorney general, will step into the Justice Department's top job in an acting role. A longtime litigator, he has served as Mr Barr's top deputy since May 2019 but largely shies away from the spotlight. He said on Tuesday he was honoured to serve and "will continue to focus on the implementation of the department's key priorities".
Mr Trump is still weighing his options, considering whether to pressure Mr Rosen to make the special counsel appointment or, if needed, to replace the acting attorney general with someone more likely to carry out his wishes. He has even asked his team of lawyers, including personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, to look into whether the president has the power to appoint a special counsel himself.
A key question will be whether Mr Rosen can stand up to presidential pressure – and potentially withering attacks – in the waning weeks of the Trump administration. If not, Mr Rosen could be cast aside in favour of others more willing to do Mr Trump’s bidding.
Believing that a special counsel inquiry could wound a Biden administration before it even begins, Mr Trump's aides are urging the president to push for one, which would make it so the investigation can not be easily stopped by the incoming president. No firm decision has been made.
Mr Trump announced that Mr Barr would be stepping down from his position on December 23, amid lingering tension between the president and the attorney general over the Hunter Biden investigation. Mr Trump was angry for days after learning that Mr Barr knew of the Hunter Biden tax investigation before the election but did not disclose it.
He was also unhappy that Mr Barr said in a widely reported interview with the AP that the Justice Department had not uncovered widespread election fraud that would have affected the results of the election.
For much of his tenure, Mr Barr was perceived as one of the president’s most loyal Cabinet members, especially after he framed the results of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation in a manner favourable to Mr Trump even though the special counsel did not exonerate the president of obstruction of justice.
It was Mr Barr who first appointed a US attorney to review the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and then sought to dismiss the criminal charges against Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
As Mr Barr exits, the biggest thing by far hanging over the Justice Department is its investigation into Hunter Biden, which involves several US attorney offices and FBI field offices. Appointing a special counsel could prove complicated, requiring the consolidation of different investigatory angles and bringing in someone new to run the inquiry and get up to speed.
Under federal regulations, a special counsel can be fired only by the attorney general and for specific reasons such as misconduct, dereliction of duty or conflict of interest – reasons that must be spelt out in writing. Appointing a special counsel for the Hunter Biden case would also signal a more prolonged and complicated investigation than the current inquiry, so far largely centred on his taxes.
A subpoena seeking documents from the younger Biden asked for information related to more than two dozen entities, including Ukraine gas company Burisma.
Either way, the case complicates Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general, upon whose shoulders this inquiry would land. Any nominee for attorney general is likely to face a mountain of questions at a confirmation hearing about how they would oversee the case.