Report: Rachel Brand quit the DOJ partly for fear that she'd be put in charge of Russiagate

There was indeed a “dream job” on the table from Walmart, notes NBC of her sudden departure, but it wasn’t just money that was pulling her away from her Justice Department gig. She was being pushed too by the prospect of becoming Trump’s new whipping boy (or girl) if/when Rod Rosenstein was finally cashiered. Were Rosenstein to leave or be forced out, she would succeed him as Bob Mueller’s direct supervisor and begin to enjoy the many perks of that job — incessant criticism in public and private from the president, intense expectations of a blockbuster prosecution by the president’s enemies, a potentially momentous showdown in which the White House demands that she fire Mueller, an equally momentous showdown in which Mueller brings charges against Trump.

If you’re a young lawyer, and Brand is just 44, inheriting the Russiagate probe would be a career-defining — and likely career-ending — development. No matter what she did and how the investigation played out, barring Mueller completely vindicating POTUS and his inner circle, she’d be demagogued. And once that happened, any chance of her becoming Attorney General or an appellate judge in some future Republican administration would be gone. Trump fans wouldn’t forget or forgive if she played a role in causing trouble for their idol.

So she’s bailing out.

As far back as last fall, Brand had expressed to friends that she felt overwhelmed and unsupported in her job, especially as many key positions under her jurisdiction had still not been filled with permanent, Senate-confirmed officials.

Four of the 13 divisions overseen by the associate attorney general remain unfilled, including the civil rights division and the civil division, over one year into the Trump administration…

Should Rosenstein be fired, Brand would be next in line to oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, thrusting her into a political spotlight that Brand told friends she did not want to enter.

Note the first boldfaced point there. It’s not just the Russiagate mess that weighed on Brand, apparently, it’s the exasperation of being chronically understaffed, a problem that’s probably only going to get worse as Trump’s ranting about the DOJ “deep state” gets noisier. Candidates to head a division at the DOJ are invariably elite lawyers, the sort of people who command seven-figure salaries in the private sector. Some *might* take a massive pay cut for a prestige job in government under normal circumstances, but under abnormal circumstances, when the president’s trash-talking his own AG and deputy AG every few weeks? Who needs it? There’s no reason to think those jobs will be filled soon or, if they are, that they’ll be filled with the caliber of lawyers to whom the DOJ is accustomed. If you’re looking for a bad omen in Brand bailing out, that’s an especially ominous one. Qualified people are leaving, to be replaced by … whom? No one? Less experienced attorneys? Trump cronies who’ll do anything he wants them to?

If you’re wondering who’s next in line now to fire Mueller should the word come down from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s an answer. And he’s a Trump appointee.

By default, under an obscure statute known as the the Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, Brand’s temporary successor as the “acting” associate attorney general is her principal deputy, Jesse Panuccio. That same statute would also allow the president to choose someone else to serve as the “acting” AAG on a temporary basis for up to 210 days; the pool of individuals from which the president could draw in this case includes individuals already holding Senate-confirmed positions elsewhere in the executive branch (like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt) or senior civil service lawyers in the Justice Department, specifically…

However, because Panuccio is not Senate-confirmed, he would not act as attorney general (or deputy attorney general) if those offices were also to become vacant. Instead, under the Justice Department’s own succession statute and guidelines implementing that law issued by Attorney General Loretta Lynch in November 2016, Brand is replaced in that line of succession by Solicitor General Noel Francisco (the solicitor general is the nation’s chief legal representative in front of the Supreme Court).

Francisco is in the same boat as Brand is. He’s young (just 49), has impeccable credentials (former Scalia clerk, later a top lawyer in the White House and DOJ), and holds a glamorous job at the Justice Department right now. The solicitor general is perennially a top-tier candidate for Supreme Court vacancies; Francisco would obviously be in the mix given his age. But now, suddenly, all that’s standing between him and a nasty political jam is Rod Rosenstein. If Trump demands that Mueller be fired and Rosenstein resigns, the ball is tossed to Francisco to decide what to do. If he resigns too, suddenly the DOJ will have lost its deputy AG, its associate AG (due to Brand’s resignation), and its solicitor general. The department would be gutted. But if he doesn’t resign and carries out the order, a la Robert Bork, to fire Mueller, he’ll be a mortal enemy of Democrats forever. His future in government might be over, however personally grateful to him Trump might be. I wonder if Francisco’s looking around for any “dream jobs” in the private sector right now. I wonder how many other DOJ lawyers are too.