'Ominous': Law prof explains why DOJ's latest abrupt resignation spells trouble for FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

After Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the third-highest-ranking official in the Department of Justice, abruptly resigned on Friday, professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law Steve Vladeck worried about President Donald Trump further attempting to obstruct justice in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Writing in a new opinion piece for NBC News, Prof. Vladeck analyzed how "Brand’s departure raises questions about who will succeed her and what her departure (and her replacement’s selection) might portend for the future of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election."

Associate AG Brand's unique position within the Department of Justice, and the Vacancies Reform Act of 1988, may have significant ramifications.

"The reason why all of this matters is because the associate attorney general is the designated successor to the Justice Department’s second-highest ranking official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And it is Rosenstein, thanks to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who authorized Mueller’s investigation in the first place — and who is the only government official with the legal authority to directly fire Mueller and otherwise terminate his investigation," Prof. Vladeck explained. "In other words, Rosenstein is the crucial fulcrum between the political leadership of the Trump administration and the quasi-independent special counsel. The president cannot directly interfere with the special counsel’s investigation without going through — or getting rid of — Rosenstein."

"Thus, for those worried that the president might try to prevent the Russia investigation from running its course, Brand’s resignation reduces the number of Senate-confirmed officials who would have to agree with the president (or whom the president would have to fire) to bring about that result," Prof. Vladeck concluded.

He noted, "the more officials who have to be forced out before the president can achieve a particular result, the greater the political costs. And so with every presumably voluntary departure of someone like Brand, the political costs of direct presidential interference with the Russia investigation may well go down."

"But even if Brand’s departure ends up having no bearing on the Russia investigation, specifically, it’s still an ominous sign more generally," Prof. Vladeck noted. "If someone as smart and accomplished as Brand came to the conclusion that the best way to protect her career was to leave the Trump administration, one can only imagine — the Russia investigation aside — exactly what she is trying to protect her career from."

On "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC Friday night, similar worries were also examined.