Rosenstein still has his job, but a Trump showdown is coming
WASHINGTON — After a long weekend spent wondering if should resign or would be fired, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein still has his job — for now.
President Donald Trump gave Rosenstein a three-day reprieve pending their face-to-face White House showdown on Thursday. That’s when the man who oversees the Trump-Russia investigation will respond to reports that he had discussed secretly recording the president and possibly using constitutional procedures to remove him from office.
The revelation that Rosenstein last year had broached the idea of taping the president touched off a dramatic weekend of conversations with the White House in which he offered to one official to resign and confided to another that he was considering doing so, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Even as he took issue with the reports, Rosenstein arrived at the White House on Monday expecting to be fired, according to another person who spoke on condition of anonymity. Instead, after he met with chief of staff John Kelly and spoke by phone to Trump himself, questions about his future were effectively tabled until the personal meeting on Thursday.
Mueller investigation: The position of deputy attorney general is ordinarily a relatively low-visibility one in Washington, but Rosenstein has assumed outsized significance given his appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Any firing or resignation spells immediate uncertainty for an investigation that Rosenstein oversees and would place that responsibility in the hands of a replacement who Democrats fear would be less respectful of Mueller’s independence and mandate. Even some congressional Republicans and Trump aides have warned for months against firing Rosenstein for fear that it could lead to impeachment.
The commotion about Rosenstein’s future adds to the turmoil roiling the administration, just six weeks before midterm elections with control of Congress at stake. In addition to dealing with the Mueller investigation, the White House is also struggling to win confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.
The Trump-Rosenstein meeting will be on the same day as an extraordinary Senate committee hearing featuring Kavanaugh and a woman who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school.
The spark: Questions about Rosenstein’s future, long simmering, took on new life Friday with a New York Times report that in May 2017 discussions with FBI and Justice Department officials he suggested the idea of secretly recording Trump — remarks his defenders insist were merely sarcastic — and of invoking the Constitution to have the Cabinet consider removing him from office.
Rosenstein was summoned to the White House on Friday evening for a conversation with chief of staff Kelly after which he issued a denial that was even sharper in tone than the one the Justice Department sent out hours earlier.
In conversations over the weekend, he told Kelly he would resign, though the terms were unclear. He also told White House Counsel Don McGahn that he was considering doing so. McGahn told Rosenstein they should discuss the issue Monday, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
He met again with Kelly on Monday and spoke by phone with Trump. Rosenstein was captured by photographers leaving the White House after his meetings Monday and was led out by Kelly.
“At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “Because the President is at the United Nations General Assembly and has a full schedule with leaders from around the world, they will meet on Thursday when the President returns to Washington, D.C.”
The meeting: It’s unclear what will happen Thursday.
Despite his “You’re Fired!” tagline from his “The Apprentice” reality show days, the president has shown himself reluctant to directly fire aides himself. While his White House has been marked with unprecedented staff turnover, Trump has often left the task to deputies, including Kelly.
He dispatched his former bodyguard to fire FBI Director James Comey — though Comey was out of town. In other cases, Trump has publicly and privately shamed staffers, pushing them to resign.
Trump, who on Friday said that he would remove a “lingering stench” from the Justice Department, did not publicly reveal any plans over the weekend.
On Monday, he said he hoped Thursday’s meeting would help him figure out “what’s going on.”
Over the weekend, he appeared undecided on Rosenstein’s fate, asking confidants, both inside and outside the White House, how to respond to the situation.
Some urged him to fire Rosenstein. Others suggested restraint while checking whether the report was correct or if it was planted by some adversary.
Tirades: Though Trump has mostly spared Rosenstein from some of the harsher and more personal attacks he has directed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he has occasionally lashed out with angry tirades at the deputy, including after FBI raids in April targeting the president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017 after Sessions, who ordinarily would have overseen the Russia investigation, recused himself because of his close involvement in the Trump campaign.
All that came one week after Rosenstein laid the groundwork for Comey’s firing by writing a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. The White House initially cited that memo as justification for Comey’s firing, though Trump himself has said he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he made his move.
Were Rosenstein to be forced out, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the highest-ranking Senate-confirmed official below him in the Justice Department, would take control of the Mueller investigation.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose private memos document comments allegedly made by Rosenstein, said Monday he was concerned that a Rosenstein departure would put the investigation at risk.
“There is nothing more important to the integrity of law enforcement and the rule of law than protecting the investigation of special counsel Mueller,” McCabe said in a statement. “I sacrificed personally and professionally to help put the investigation on a proper course and subsequently made every effort to protect it.”