Is Donald Trump about to fire Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General, who oversees the special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation? This is one of two questions consuming the political world this weekend, following a report in the Times that, in May, 2017, Rosenstein suggested invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment to oust the President in the wake of his dismissal of James Comey from his post as the director of the F.B.I. (The other question is whether Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, of sexually assaulting her when they were both teen-agers, will testify on Capitol Hill this coming week.) Although Rosenstein has dismissed the Times story as “inaccurate and factually incorrect,” many people on both sides of the political aisle believe it may have provided Trump a casus belli for getting rid of him, which is something the President appears to have been itching to do for ages.
As of Saturday morning, Trump hadn’t made any public comment about the Times story. But late Friday, the Washington Post reported that he “asked advisers Friday if he should fire Rosenstein, and some of those around the president sought to sway him not to make any decision Friday night.” At a campaign event rally in Springfield, Missouri, on Friday evening, Trump didn’t mention Rosenstein directly. But he did say, “Look at what’s being exposed at the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. We have great people in the Department of Justice . . . but we have some real bad ones. You see what’s happening at the F.B.I. They’re all gone, they’re all gone. But there’s a lingering stench, and we’re going to get rid of that, too.”
Amid intense speculation about whether Rosenstein will survive the weekend, some senior Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, warned Trump not to fire the deputy Attorney General. More surprisingly, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s strongest supporters in the conservative media, also appealed to him not to take any rash actions. “I have a message for the President,” Hannity said during his show on Friday night. “Under zero circumstances should the President fire anybody.” Hannity went on: “The President needs to know this is a setup.”
Hannity’s intervention was particularly startling because, just hours earlier, his colleague at Fox, Laura Ingraham, had tweeted, “Rod Rosenstein must be fired today.” In breaking with this line, Hannity, who recently predicted that Trump would soon dismiss Mueller, suggested that the Times story about Rosenstein was part of a “deep state” plot to lure the President into acting rashly. “They are hoping and praying that the President does just that, that he gets mad, that he gets sick and tired of it,” Hannity said.
The drama began on Friday afternoon, when the Times posted a story containing this scorching opening paragraph: “The deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, suggested last year that he secretly record President Trump in the White House to expose the chaos consuming the administration, and he discussed recruiting cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office for being unfit.” The story went on to say that Rosenstein made these suggestions “in meetings and conversations with other Justice Department and F.B.I. officials” several days after Trump’s firing of Comey, which occurred on May 9, 2017. The story noted that Rosenstein feared he had been used by Trump, who cited a memo that Rosenstein wrote about Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation to justify the dismissal.
Rosenstein, who rarely talks to the media, responded to the Times report by issuing two public statements. The first one said, “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. But let me be clear about this: based on my personal dealings with the President, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.” In background briefings to several news organizations, a senior Justice Department official, who attended the May, 2017, meeting, insisted that Rosenstein was being sarcastic when he allegedly offered to wear a wire to secretly tape Trump.
Later in the evening, Rosenstein issued a second statement, which said, “I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false.” According to the Washington Post, Rosenstein’s second public comment came after White House officials asked him to issue a more vigorous denial of the Times story. Some online commentators had suggested that the first one was a non-denial denial. That wasn’t really true, but it seems clear that someone in the White House wanted to reassure Trump with a statement that made crystal-clear that Rosenstein denied ever having suggested he be removed from office. But it’s still not clear whether Rosenstein’s statements, and the efforts of some of Trump’s staff to restrain the President, will save the deputy A.G.
Another important issue that remains unresolved is who leaked the story to the Times. Its report attributed the information about Rosenstein to unnamed sources who were “insisting on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.” As the Times story went viral, a number of commentators suggested it could well be a deliberate leak from the White House, or a Trump ally elsewhere, to justify giving Rosenstein the axe. Others speculated that the story may have come from one of Rosenstein’s adversaries on Capitol Hill, where, earlier this year, some ultra-conservative House Republicans introduced articles of impeachment against him on the grounds that the Justice Department was refusing to release some documents they were demanding, which related to the Russia investigation.
But these weren’t the only leak theories that circulated on Friday. The Times report also said that the anonymous sources who told the paper about Rosenstein’s alleged statements to colleagues “were briefed either on the events themselves or on memos written by F.B.I. officials, including Andrew G. McCabe, then the acting bureau director, that documented Mr. Rosenstein’s actions and comments.” To some observers, this passage seemed to suggest that McCabe, a former ally of Comey’s who served as deputy director of the F.B.I. until he was fired, in May, for alleged infractions related to the Bureau’s Clinton investigation, might have leaked the information to the Times to make Rosenstein look bad. In a reference to Rosenstein’s denials, Norm Eisen, a former ethics czar in the Obama White House, tweeted, “I have known Rod for 25 years. If he says it is ‘inaccurate & factually incorrect,’ it is. Can’t know NYT source for sure but (like a previous & similar NYT story) there are indicators this is revenge effort by McCabe.”
McCabe’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, quickly responded to speculation about his client. In a statement, Bromwich said, “Andrew McCabe 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.”
Regardless of the source of the Times story, questions have been raised about its accuracy. Citing sources in the Justice Department, NBC News provided another account of the May 16, 2017, meeting at which Rosenstein allegedly made his comments about wearing a wire to tape Trump and recruiting Cabinet members to oust him. The NBC report said, “Rosenstein was arguing with Andrew McCabe, then the acting director of the FBI, about the president . . . ‘Well, what do you want me to do, Andy, wear a wire?’ Rosenstein asked at the meeting, which also included FBI lawyer Lisa Page and four career DOJ officials, according to the senior official . . . This official and a source who was in the room characterized Rosenstein’s remark as sarcastic.” The NBC report also said the Justice Department official claimed “that the reference to invoking the Constitution to remove Trump comes from a post-meeting memo written by McCabe that said the deputy attorney general ‘raises 25th amendment’ and that Page’s notes from the same meeting do not contain any similar note.”
The Times is standing by its story, however. On Twitter, Michael S. Schmidt, who wrote the story with Adam Goldman, pushed back against some of the questions that have been raised about it. Schmidt said, “Lisa Page’s memo makes no mention of the 25th amendment because it documents a different meeting (that same day) than the one McCabe was writing about.” Schmidt further said, “We’ve learned that on a second occasion, Rosenstein discussed wearing a wire. This was in addition to the earlier instance of him raising the idea of either him or FBI officials wearing recording devices for when they see Trump.” On Friday night, Schmidt told MSNBC’s Brian Williams that, despite Rosenstein’s denials and other questions that had been raised about the story, he was confident the Times had got right the context of the deputy Attorney General’s comments. “In the meeting Rosenstein was asked. ‘Are you serious?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am,’ ” Schmidt said.
Doubtless, there will be more discussion about the origins and veracity of the Times story. For now, though, all eyes are on Trump, who is spending the weekend at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. Will he devote the weekend to golf? Will he take his pal Hannity’s advice to cool it? Or will he get all stewed up about Rosenstein and decide to act? One thing that may restrain him is that he doesn’t know whom to believe. In the past, he has accused both Rosenstein and McCabe of having conflicts of interest, and of partaking in a “witch hunt.” In the discussions with his staff on Friday about whether he should fire Rosenstein, the Washington Post reported, “Trump said he did not trust Rosenstein or McCabe.”