They have demanded thousands of documents central to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. They threaten to impeach Mueller’s boss, who in turn accuses them of “extortion.” One has even likened the Russia probe to a possible “coup d’etat.”
President Donald Trump calls them his "warriors": a band of four House Republicans defending Trump with a relentless counterattack against the Justice Department’s Russia investigation that thrills the president even as it unsettles some House GOP colleagues who think they’re going too far.
This crew of hard-charging conservatives, whom Trump singled out by name in late April, have emerged as some of Washington’s most prominent Republicans, enjoying direct lines to the Trump White House and flights on Air Force One.
"Look, we have some absolute warriors," Trump told Fox News on April 26 when asked about his relationship with Congress, name-checking "Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows and Matt Gaetz and [Ron] DeSantis.”
Their emergence underscores a reality of the Trump era: power and prominence on Capitol Hill these days often flow not to the most senior lawmakers but to Republicans who display allegiance to a president who prizes loyalty. None of the four holds a powerful committee chairmanship, but they have something just as important: regular airtime on Fox News. And their pressure campaign against the Justice Department and FBI has put Mueller’s boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the defensive.
The scorched-earth approach by the relatively junior members – only Jordan has served more than 5 years – is in some ways reminiscent of the way a young GOP congressman named Newt Gingrich, joined by a group of back bench House colleagues, shocked Washington in the mid-1980s with their theatrical attacks on Democratic leaders.
It has similarly enraged liberals today, who say that Trump’s “warriors” care only about protecting the president – and may even be conspiring with him to create a pretext for firing Rosenstein.
On Thursday, the left-leaning public watchdog group Democracy21 accused Meadows and Jordan of “colluding to obstruct and potentially give Trump control over” Mueller’s probe. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, says they are “trying to sabotage” Mueller, and “want to force a confrontation with the Deputy Attorney General.”
“When Mr. Rosenstein refuses to provide [requested] documents, Republicans will pounce with their transparent, dishonest articles of impeachment – unless President Trump beats them to the punch, and fires Mr. Rosenstein directly first," Nadler said.
It all helps explain why Gaetz, a 35-year-old freshman from Florida, routinely gets calls from the president, including critiques of his Fox News appearances, and has flown at least twice on Air Force One. In a November House floor speech, Gaetz called on Mueller to resign, warning of the “risk of a coup d’etat in this country if we allow an unaccountable person with no oversight to undermine the duly-elected president of the United States.”
The 39-year-old DeSantis, who last week called for criminal investigations of former FBI director James Comey and his former deputy Andrew McCabe, won Trump’s early endorsement in Florida’s contested GOP primary for governor. He has also proposed cutting off funding for Mueller’s investigation.
Meadows, 58, a North Carolinian who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, speaks with Trump on a regular basis and has been floated as a potential successor for the beleaguered White House chief of staff, John Kelly.
He and Jordan, who is vice chairman of the Freedom Caucus, have led the charge against Rod Rosenstein, against whom they have drafted articles of impeachment in response to what they call Rosenstein’s unacceptable delays in turning over documents related both to Mueller’s investigation – as well as the 2016 FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, which they suspect should have resulted in criminal action against Clinton. The two men even visited the Justice Department last month for a tense face-to-face meeting in which they demanded a faster response to their document requests.
"The president’s been frustrated by some of the tactics that have been used against him," Gaetz said in an interview. "I think those frustrations are well-founded in fact and I appreciate him encouraging others to join our call."
Rosenstein fired back defiantly earlier this week, without naming his critics but leaving little doubt that he was talking about Meadows and company.
“I think they should understand by now that the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” Rosenstein said, citing what he called “public and private threats.”
“We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law, and any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job,” he added.
But Trump’s die-hard defenders aren’t backing down. They have little reason to, given that Trump carried their districts by an average of nearly 30 points in 2016.
Jordan, a 54-year-old fifth-term congressman from Ohio who has been particularly loyal to Trump – he drew national attention last month for telling CNN he has never heard the president lie – said he believes the Justice Department is biased against the president and has lost sight of the principle of “equal treatment under the law."
"The mission statement of the House Freedom Caucus is we came here to fight for countless number of people who feel like this town’s forgotten them. The president’s come to this town to fight for folks who feel like this town has forgotten them," he said.
The four House Republicans have taken the lead on Russia in the weeks since the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by the Trump-friendly Rep. Devin Nunes, wrapped up its probe into Russian election interference, which featured aggressive GOP questioning of the Justice Department.
Jordan, Gaetz and DeSantis sit on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Justice Department. Meadows, Jordan and DeSantis are also on the House Oversight Committee, which has broad authority to question the executive branch and has probed the FBI’s handling of the 2016 Clinton investigation and other decision-making by the bureau as the Trump-Russia probe was launched.
Using his Twitter account and public comments, Trump has amplified the Republicans’ complaints about his own Justice Department’s willingness to share investigative documents with Congress.
In a May 2 tweet, Trump commented on a recent demand by Jordan and Meadows that Rosenstein provide an unredacted copy of the order setting out the scope of Mueller’s investigation, which could offer clues about its avenues of inquiry. The Justice Department has refused to comply.
“They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress. What are they afraid of?” Trump tweeted on May 2. “At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”
Justice Department officials say they carefully protect documents related to ongoing investigations as a matter of practice – citing “the longstanding position of the department that congressional inquiries pertaining to ongoing criminal investigations threaten the integrity of those investigations,” as one put it in a letter to Meadows and Jordan obtained by CBS News.
Trump has issued veiled threats to fire Rosenstein, whose successor Democrats fear would seek to constrain Mueller – or even end his probe. Trump’s new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, called on Rosenstein earlier this week this week to do just that, and railed without evidence against "crimes" he said had been committed by investigators.
In an interview, Meadows said the Justice Department took more than three weeks days to respond to his request for the order defining Mueller’s probe and called it notably "coincidental" that it was rejected just as Trump allies in Congress began issuing calls for Rosenstein’s impeachment. He called Rosenstein’s vow to not be "extorted" a seemingly "well-rehearsed" line, noting that he’s had "multiple personal conversations" with the deputy attorney general and "literally hundreds of calls" to the Justice Department.
"He can’t argue with the facts," Meadows said. "The facts are that we’ve had six months of asking for documents. The facts are that we have a number of subpoenas that the deadlines have come and gone. The facts are that it is only with incredible pressure that the Department of Justice actually delivers anything to Congress. And the facts are that we have a constitutional oversight responsibility that cannot be ignored."
Meadows said he hopes to avoid an impeachment scenario. "All I want are the documents that constitutionally we’re entitled to and certainly Rod should convey to us," he said. (Congress can impeach Justice Department officials but doing so requires a majority of House Republicans and a two-thirds Senate vote, which would be highly unlikely.)
On Sunday, he showed new signs of growing impatience: “Enough is enough. It’s time to hold DOJ officials in contempt of Congress,” he tweeted.
To be sure, other Republicans in Congress – including some with vast power to compel the Justice Department to turn over documents – are applying their own pressure on the Justice Department and FBI. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has subpoenaed the department for records, and Nunes recently threatened to initiate contempt or impeachment proceedings against Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray over withheld documents.
At the same time, House leaders, while supporting the demands for documents have been careful to emphasize that Mueller should be allowed to continue his work unimpeded. Speaker Paul Ryan has voiced support for Mueller and Rosenstein, as has Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a key investigator who has otherwise joined in the calls for speedier access to Justice Department files.
Against that backdrop, the Justice Department, historically a jealous guardian of its investigative material, has made a series of capitulations to GOP demands – in some cases making extraordinary exceptions to longstanding rules against sharing material from an ongoing investigation.
The department has provided Congress with Comey’s memos documenting his interactions with Trump, considered central evidence in Mueller’s obstruction probe. It also turned over the FBI file that launched the Trump-Russia probe in 2016. And in recent weeks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who is recused from all matters connected to the Trump and Clinton campaigns – has tapped two U.S. attorneys to speed the production of documents to Congress.
Some Democrats are urging the Justice Department to fight back harder.
“Releasing investigatory files during an ongoing investigation sets a disturbing precedent, and the Deputy Attorney General must be aware that no matter what he gives to these members of Congress, it will never be enough,” Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement last month.
“House Republicans are spoiling to manufacture a conflict with the Justice Department that would give the President a pretext to get rid of Mueller or Rosenstein, heedless of the damage they are doing to our institutions,” he added.
But Gaetz and his allies said they are stepping up the pressure now, for fear that Justice Department officials like Rosenstein are playing a long game, hoping that – with midterm elections coming and Republicans lagging in the polls – time is on their side.
"I worry that there may be some people at the Department of Justice and the FBI who think they can wait us out, who think that Democrats will retake the majority and that oversight will fizzle to a burnt ember," he said. "We’ve got to keep the fire going now.”