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Rachel Brand, Third In Command At The Justice Department, Is Leaving Her Post


Rachel Brand, the No. 3 person at the Justice Department, will be leaving her post. Her departure is notable because she would be in line to replace Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who's supervising the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now with more. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Rachel's been in this job nine months. Why is she leaving already?

JOHNSON: Well, in short, she got an offer she couldn't refuse. Five people close to Rachel Brand tell me she's gotten an offer to become the top lawyer at Walmart, a Fortune 50 company and a really big deal. I'm told she wasn't looking. They came to her. Of course, Rachel Brand is a former Supreme Court clerk, worked for Justice Anthony Kennedy. She helped pick judges in the George W. Bush administration, then served on an intelligence oversight board. She's in her early 40s, Ari. She seems to be going places and wanting to go.

SHAPIRO: Wanting to go - this doesn't, then, have to do with the Russia probe and the Mueller investigation and all of that stuff?

JOHNSON: I talked with her friends, and they say there's no public sign that something happened inside the Justice Department or the White House that she was escaping. But we know the Justice Department has been feeling the heat under the president now for months. And it could get hotter if, as expected, the special counsel for Russia, Robert Mueller, puts in a formal request to interview Donald Trump at some point. Then push may come to shove.

SHAPIRO: How does Rachel Brand's departure impact that Russia probe?

JOHNSON: Well, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the No. 2 at Justice, is supervising the Mueller team. And he is still in place. He's approving the Mueller budget. And he gets advance notice of big steps like indictments or subpoenas or guilty pleas. Trump, we know, has been very unhappy with Rod Rosenstein, but the White House has denied there's a plan to remove him. If that changes, Brand's departure, Rachel Brand's departure, means that responsibility will fall on Solicitor General Noel Francisco unless and until somebody else is confirmed.

SHAPIRO: Today is the anniversary of Jeff Sessions being sworn in as attorney general. Now the No. 3 Department of Justice official is on her way out. And you've reported there's still a lot of big jobs open at Justice.

JOHNSON: Yeah. One year in, there's no one in charge of the criminal division, the national security division, the tax division, the environment division and of, course, the civil rights division. Now they're going to need to find a No. 3, an associate attorney general.

And, Ari, that could be kind of tricky because there are lots of - going to be lots of questions in any confirmation hearing moving forward about whether or not this person will fully support the special counsel, will protect the independence of the Justice Department, which Donald Trump has been tweeting about for months and months now, and whether that person will quit rather than fire Robert Mueller. And so it could be kind of a tricky confirmation battle for whoever gets chosen to fill this job.

SHAPIRO: As you said, there has been a lot of speculation about the future of Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel probe. Rachel Brand, the next in command, was always thought of as an established Republican figure with a long history at the Justice Department. Can you tell us about the solicitor general, who would be next in line if Rod Rosenstein recuses himself or is fired?

JOHNSON: Noel Francisco is also a familiar person in Washington and in conservative circles. He is a former law partner of the White House counsel, Don McGahn, and one of a number of lawyers from that same law firm, Jones Day, that have joined this administration. Of course, back in 1973 during that Saturday Night Massacre that we talked about, Robert Bork was the one to ultimately fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. So we'll all be watching to see what happens next.

SHAPIRO: So everybody is certainly watching. But Rachel Brand's departure is not the trigger for some kind of series of dominoes that people might be afraid of.

JOHNSON: Not at this point, although there's no public sign she's leaving because of the Russia investigation. Her friends do tell me she wants to go places. And it's a tough time to be in this administration.

SHAPIRO: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.