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Republican Leaders Don't Support Conservative Effort To Impeach Rod Rosenstein

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Eleven House Republicans filed articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last night. The move escalates a fight between House Republicans and the Justice Department. It's a battle House Speaker Paul Ryan isn't interested in fighting.

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PAUL RYAN: I don't think we should be cavalier with this process or with this term.

CORNISH: NPR's Kelsey Snell joins us from Capitol Hill. Hey there, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So what drove this group of Republicans to go rogue (laughter) and call for Rosenstein's impeachment?

SNELL: Well, let's start with - the person leading all of this is House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows. He's working with about 10 other very conservative Republicans on impeachment. And it all stems from kind of several months of fighting with the Justice Department over documents. Republicans want the DOJ to turn over texts, emails and other information related to two FBI investigations.

First, they want info on the probe into Hillary Clinton's emails. And second, they want more information about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the election. And Meadows has been accused of using this whole fight about impeachment to undermine the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller, but that's a charge he denies.

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MARK MEADOWS: But the big, fundamental thing that we're trying to do is get the documents for the American people. I mean - and so any suggestion that this is an end run to thwart the Mueller investigation is just not accurate.

SNELL: Yeah. And I talked to him about this for some time today. And he said that, you know, this impeachment idea is just one of the many strategies he could use to try to force the Department of Justice to play ball with Congress on these documents.

CORNISH: In the meantime, how have Democrats responded?

SNELL: Well, as I'm sure you can imagine, they do not agree. Over time, this has kind of become an odd situation where Democrats are the primary defenders of a Republican-appointed attorney general, somebody appointed by President Trump. He's become something of a hero among Democrats because he's overseeing the Mueller probe into Russian meddling. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she thinks the impeachment proves Republicans want to shut down that investigation, not like what we heard from Meadows.

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NANCY PELOSI: Just when you think you have seen it all, Republicans have no shame to go to a place where they would undermine our judicial system.

CORNISH: Now, to be clear, this vote did not happen.

SNELL: Right.

CORNISH: The House has left town for an extended summer break. Is it something that's going to come back up later?

SNELL: Meadows says that he's not ruling out the option of bringing this up again. He has this option. He could file it as, in congressional parlance, a privileged resolution. Really all that means is that he could force a vote within 10 days. But the only people talking about this are those 11 guys who signed the original letter. The rest of the people we talked to today didn't want to talk about the Russia investigation at all.

All the Republicans we talked to said that they didn't think this was a great idea. And even Meadows admitted that he didn't have the votes to have it pass if he tried today. And it's not just that. Ryan opposes not only the tactic but the entire reasoning behind it. So it doesn't look very good.

CORNISH: Finally, one of Rosenstein's leading critics actually announced that he was running for speaker of the House today. Tell us more about this person, Ohio - Jim Jordan, Ohio's Jim Jordan. And does he actually have a shot?

SNELL: The short answer's no. It takes 218 votes to become speaker. And Jordan is a controversial figure in the House. He is popular among those very conservative Republicans, but he's been a pretty aggressive critic of the leadership and has had big clashes with them. Not all Republicans really like the Freedom Caucus, so it's not likely he will actually become speaker.

CORNISH: He also stands accused of turning a blind eye some decades ago to sexual misconduct by a team doctor at Ohio State - right? - where he was an assistant coach at the time. Is that something that's going to come up if he wants to run for speaker?

SNELL: He says that he's confident that the accusations are behind him. But even a glimmer of some kind of confrontation could be politically fatal for him, particularly at a time when the country's still talking about the #MeToo movement.

CORNISH: That's NPR Capitol Hill reporter Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.