The extraordinary allegations, depicting a panic-stricken No. 2 official at the Justice Department who has been a target of the President in the past, immediately raised questions about Rosenstein’s future.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the top official at the department, was “upset” and “concerned” upon reading the Times story, according to a source close to him. Former Justice Department officials went into damage control mode trying to dismiss McCabe’s recollection of his interactions with Rosenstein.
CNN has not reviewed the McCabe memos, but they have been turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller, according to sources familiar with the matter. Rosenstein oversees Mueller’s investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and recently secured the cooperation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Rosenstein issued a rare statement himself forcefully denying the Times report.
“The New York Times’s story is inaccurate and factually incorrect. I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the Department and are advancing their own personal agenda,” Rosenstein said in a statement. “But let me be clear about this: based on my personal dealings with the President, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
McCabe’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement to CNN that his client “drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions.”
“When he was interviewed by the special counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos — classified and unclassified — to the special counsel’s office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos,” Bromwich added.
A source who was in the room told CNN that the wire comment was “sarcastic and was never discussed with any intention of recording a conversation with the President.” Another source familiar with the matter told CNN he was joking. The Times, however, citing sources who described his comments, said Rosenstein was serious about the idea and followed up suggesting that FBI officials interviewing to be FBI director secretly record Trump.
None of Rosenstein’s proposals came to fruition, according to the Times report. The discussions that are referenced occurred just weeks into Rosenstein’s tenure as the No. 2 at the Justice Department, when he had provided the White House with a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation that was cited in Trump’s decision to fire his FBI director.
The White House has not commented on the Rosenstein story.
A former Justice Department official said it was unlikely Rosenstein was being serious.
“When you are in a tense meeting he’s able to dial down the tension with a well-timed joke,” said the former official. “It’s 100% in character. It’s not 100% in character to suggest that seriously. He’s careful and meticulous.”
On the 25th Amendment remark, the former official said that “just doesn’t seem like him to ever say anything like that. The idea that he’d discuss some half-baked plot with someone he’s just working with for the first time” seems improbable, a reference to the fact that as of mid-May 2017, he’d worked with McCabe only a short time.
Separately, another former official said he never heard anything like this from Rosenstein during their time working together.
Congressional fight begins
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned the White House not to use the story to try to fire Rosenstein.
“This story must not be used as a pretext for the corrupt purpose of firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in order install an official who will allow the president to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation,” Schumer said in a statement. “Generals Kelly, Mattis and numerous other White House and cabinet officials have been reported to say critical things of the president without being fired.”
Rosenstein has been a frequent target of the President, who has called the special counsel’s investigation a witch hunt and a hoax, and House Republicans have threatened to hold the deputy attorney general in contempt or to even impeach him.
Two of Rosenstein’s most vocal critics in the House, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, called for McCabe’s memos to be released via Twitter.
Jordan, who along with Meadows has introduced articles of impeachment against Rosenstein, declined to weigh in on whether Rosenstein’s discussions about a wearing a wire and the 25th Amendment were grounds for Trump to fire him, saying that was a decision for the President.
But Jordan told CNN in an interview Friday that it underscored the fact that Congress should be given a copy of the McCabe memos, which he says Republicans were denied when they sought them in July. “Mr. Rosenstein says he didn’t say what The New York Times is writing about. Let us see all the information and we can all judge for ourselves,” Jordan said.
Not long after those reports, Trump said McCabe “never took notes” in meetings and suggested that his memos were “fake.”
“Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t believe he made memos except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them Fake Memos?”
Trump has also painted McCabe as a serial liar. In April, after the Justice Department inspector general released a report damaging to McCabe, Trump promoted the report on Twitter and said it was a “total disaster” for McCabe. Trump added, “He LIED! LIED! LIED!”
Sessions fired McCabe in March over accusations that he had approved other FBI officials speaking with the media about an ongoing investigation into the Clinton Foundation and had misled investigators about his actions.
McCabe has fiercely disputed the findings of the Justice Department’s inspector general, but he is still under criminal investigation by the US Attorney’s Office in DC.