Drama eases as Trump seems less likely to fire Rosenstein
WASHINGTON — Expectations have diminished that a closely watched meeting Thursday between President Donald Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will result in the resignation or immediate firing of the Justice Department’s No. 2 official. But it’s unclear how safe his job will be after the November midterm elections.
The White House sought this week to reassure senators that Trump doesn’t plan to fire Rosenstein at the meeting, and doing so in person would be out of character for a president who has appeared reluctant to directly dismiss aides himself.
Meanwhile, friends and former colleagues of Rosenstein say they don’t expect him to step aside and give up oversight of the special counsel’s Trump-Russia investigation and the enormous swath of Justice Department operations for which he is responsible.
Rosenstein, who has spent his entire career in government, “has tremendous loyalty to the department,” said former Justice Department lawyer and longtime friend James Trusty.
“He’s a very long-run, historical-minded guy in a lot of ways,” Trusty said. “I think he may have some confidence that history will be kinder to him than politicians are.”
The meeting follows a chaotic period that began Friday with news reports that Rosenstein had last year discussed possibly secretly recording the president and using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. The Justice Department issued statements Friday aimed at denying the reporting, including one that said the wiretap remark was meant sarcastically.
Rosenstein’s job status seemed especially precarious Monday when he arrived at the White House expecting to be fired. He had already told White House chief of staff John Kelly that he would offer to resign and told White House counsel Don McGahn that he was considering doing so, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The drama appeared to be defused, at least temporarily, after Rosenstein met again Monday with Kelly and spoke by phone with Trump in what the White House described as an “extended conversation.”
Unpredictability: Trump is famously unpredictable so it’s impossible to predict what will occur Thursday.
But White House officials called senators Monday to say Trump had said he wouldn’t be firing Rosenstein at the meeting, according to two people familiar with the conversations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions. Aides have advised Trump against taking any extreme actions ahead of the midterms with his party’s majorities in Congress already under threat.
The White House also has been consumed with trying to ensure the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an extraordinary hearing on the same day Rosenstein is meeting with Trump.
Firing Rosenstein would not only add to the turmoil of that process but would also immediately affect special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017, oversees his work and has repeatedly defended the breadth and scope of the probe.
White House officials have been loath to address publicly Rosenstein’s fate since Monday’s reprieve. They say he remains in limbo, and Thursday’s meeting could go in any direction.
Trump has been critical of Rosenstein’s oversight of the Russia probe, but the two have at times displayed a warm working relationship, and Rosenstein has been spared some of the more personal and antagonistic broadsides leveled against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Even if Rosenstein survives Thursday, it’s not clear how much longer he’ll be around. Trump has signaled that he may fire Sessions after the midterms, and Rosenstein could go with him.
But it could be sooner: Some officials around Trump believe Rosenstein’s reported musings about invoking the 25th Amendment could make it defensible for Trump to part with him, even during the final sprint to Election Day.
Rosenstein’s friends and former colleagues describe him as exceptionally committed to the Justice Department – one said he “bleeds” for the agency – and unlikely to leave on his own, though they say he respects the chain of command enough to resign if asked.
He joined the department in 1990, serving as a public corruption prosecutor, a Tax Division supervisor and a member of independent counsel Ken Starr’s Whitewater team.
He was named U.S. Attorney in Maryland by George W. Bush and held the position throughout the Obama administration – remarkable longevity for a position that typically turns over with changes in political power.
“There’s never been a cleaner guy in the Justice Department than this man,” said Baltimore lawyer Steven Silverman, a Rosenstein friend. He said, “I don’t think there’s a chance in hell” that Rosenstein would resign.
Within weeks of being confirmed as deputy attorney general, he was engulfed in controversy by writing a memo critical of then-FBI Director James Comey, which the White House cited as justification for Comey’s firing. Rosenstein appointed Mueller a week later.
Though it all, he has displayed gallows humor about the tumultuous nature of the job, joking in speeches that he told one of his daughters when he took the job that his picture wouldn’t be in newspapers because “deputy attorney general is a low-profile management job.”
The president’s attacks have been impossible for Rosenstein and his boss to ignore.
But, said Trusty, “He’s thick-skinned enough to know these are the ways of Washington.”
Associated Press writers Chad Day, Ken Thomas Michael Balsamo in Washington and Zeke Miller in New York contributed to this report.