The person next in line to oversee the Mueller investigation suddenly stepped down

  • Rachel Brand, the third in line at the US Justice Department, plans to step down, The New York Times reported Friday.
  • As associate attorney general, Brand would have been next to oversee the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, in the absence of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
  • She became associate attorney general in May 2017, the same month that Mueller was placed in charge of the Russia probe.

Rachel Brand, the third in line at the US Justice Department, suddenly stepped down, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Brand, who became associate attorney general in May 2017, will take a new position as global governance director at Walmart, The Times reported. She has held government positions over the course of three presidential administrations.

As associate attorney general, Brand would have been next to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 US election, in the absence of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. Jeff Sessions, who sits at the top of the department, previously recused himself from the probe.

Sessions earlier this month praised Brand for her service, thanking her for what he called her “strong leadership.”

“Rod and Rachel are Harvard graduates, they are experienced lawyers. Rod’s had 27 years in the department, Rachel’s had a number of years in the department previously, so they both represent the kind of quality and leadership we want in the department,” Sessions said.

The sudden departure follows months of unrest within the top echelons of federal law-enforcement in the US, due in part to the increasingly fiery rhetoric from President Donald Trump and his allies, who have sought to cast a pall of suspicion over the DOJ and the FBI.

Donald trumpGetty Images/PoolDonald Trump.

Federal law-enforcement agencies under attack

Trump has publicly ridiculed career officials at both agencies, chiefly because of the Russia investigation, which the president has, at points, called a “witch hunt.” Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI who received some of the fiercest of Trump’s attacks, was reportedly pushed out of the bureau last week.

Aside from heightened turnover at the agencies, they have also born the brunt of scrutiny over questions about their impartiality. That matter was the subject of a memo produced by the Republican House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, whose document sought to call into question the methods by which the nation’s top law-enforcement officials engaged in surveillance of a former Trump adviser during the 2016 election.

Democrats on that committee have produced their own memo that they say will rebut some of the claims made in the Nunes document. Nunes has said that more memos are coming.

A Russia “cloud,” and expectations of obedience and loyalty

Trump has focused his anger at the DOJ’s top brass since the start of his administration. He famously clashed with then-acting attorney Sally Yates in January 2017, after she told colleagues that she wasn’t sure whether the first iteration of Trump’s travel ban was lawful. She was promptly fired.

Sessions took over after his Senate confirmation, but because of multiple unanswered questions about his 2016 interactions with a Russian ambassador to the US, he recused himself from the Russia probe, angering Trump. He has since been an occasional target of Trump’s anger over the investigation. A New York Times report published in January indicated that the president dispatched a White House lawyer to convince Sessions not to recuse.

Trump has needled Sessions publicly and in private, calling him the “beleaguered” attorney general on Twitter last summer and lamenting that he had no one to protect him at the DOJ. He also criticised Sessions in July for not firing McCabe.

Mueller is said to be pursuing an obstruction of justice case against the president for his alleged demands for loyalty from James Comey, the FBI director Trump fired in May. Trump also wanted Comey to “let go” of the FBI’s investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Shortly after firing Comey, the president later said that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he made the call. He has since lobbied some members of Congress to help him raise doubts about the investigation and about the FBI and DOJ. Some have obliged, and the chorus of that rhetoric has prompted strong rebukes inside and outside of government.

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