White House officials said Monday that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein will stay in his job for now, but will meet with the president on Thursday to discuss the tensions that officials said nearly led to his departure earlier in the day.
Multiple officials said that during a series of conversations over the weekend between and among White House and Justice Department officials, it appeared Rosenstein planned to resign on Monday, in the wake of reports that he had once suggested secretly recording the president and mounting an effort within the Cabinet to remove him from office.
During some of those conversations, Rosenstein indicated that his resignation might be warranted to end the controversy, according to people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
When Rosenstein went to the White House Monday morning, senior Trump advisers expected him to resign, according to several advisers. A Justice Department official, however, said that he had no intention of resigning but went there with the expectation he would be fired.
As often happens in government, the two sides heading for a high-stakes confrontation decided instead to hold another meeting.
“At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “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.”
After Rosenstein met with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, he proceeded to a meeting of senior administration officials, indicating that at least for the moment, he was staying on the job.
Rosenstein has been overseeing the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and whether any Trump associates conspired with those efforts.
Amid the conflicting accounts of whether Rosenstein would resign, be fired, or still be in his job at the end of the week, it was clear that his position at the Justice Department had never been more tenuous.
One Trump adviser said that the president has not been pressuring Rosenstein to leave. The person said Rosenstein had expressed to others that he should resign because he “felt very compromised” and the controversy hurt his ability to oversee the Russia inquiry, said a person close to Trump.
When White House officials believed over the weekend that Rosenstein was about to depart, they planned to tap Matt Whitaker, the chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to become the acting deputy attorney general, while oversight of the Russia investigation would pass to someone else — Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the No. 4 official at the Justice Department.
Rosenstein has been the target of Trump’s public ire and private threats for months, but uncertainty about his future deepened after it was revealed Friday that memos written by Andrew McCabe when he was FBI deputy director said that in May 2017, Rosenstein suggested secretly recording the president and invoking the 25th Amendment to replace him.
McCabe memorialized discussions he had with Rosenstein and other senior officials in the stress-packed days immediately following James B. Comey’s firing as FBI director. At that moment, the FBI was deeply suspicious of Rosenstein’s role in the decision, and the Justice Department was worried that it had lost credibility with Congress for giving Trump a memo that said the FBI needed new leadership.
Others involved in those May 2017 discussions said Rosenstein’s comments about secretly recording the president were sarcastic and came as McCabe was pressing the Justice Department to investigate the president’s firing of Comey as possible obstruction of justice.
In statements Friday, Rosenstein denied that he ever seriously contemplated secretly recording the president or pursuing the 25th Amendment to replace the president, as was first reported by the New York Times.
“The New York Times’s story is inaccurate and factually incorrect,” Rosenstein said. “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 a second statement hours later, Rosenstein 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.”
For more than a year, Trump’s public and private comments about the Russia investigation have led to speculation and concern that Rosenstein could be fired.
Rosenstein, a Republican and career Justice Department official who had served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, came into office on a wave of bipartisan support, but Comey was fired soon afterward, and Rosenstein was immediately drawn into fierce partisan battles surrounding the Russia inquiry.
Rosenstein became deputy attorney general in April 2017 and assumed oversight of Mueller’s investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who did not disclose to Congress that he had met during the 2016 campaign with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, recused himself from the inquiry involving the election.
Just days into his job as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, Rosenstein wrote a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of the earlier investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for government work when she was secretary of state.
The White House used Rosenstein’s memo to justify Comey’s firing. Days later, Rosenstein appointed Mueller, and the special counsel has since been examining the firing of Comey and whether it was part of a pattern of behavior that amounts to obstruction of justice by the president.
Rosenstein’s decisions, including the renewal of a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser, have prompted furious Twitter outbursts from the president. “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” he has written.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Mueller inquiry as a “witch hunt” designed to delegitimize his election victory and undermine his presidency.
Some of the president’s most outspoken supporters have railed against Rosenstein. Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) at one point described the deputy attorney general and former Justice Department officials as “traitors to our nation.”
Democrats and many Republicans have warned Trump against any attempt to assume control of or shut down Mueller’s investigation, either by firing Rosenstein to appoint a pliable successor, or dismissing Mueller directly. And they have said the president risks sparking a constitutional crisis if he tries to derail the inquiry.
“I’d like to make something crystal clear to the president. Mr. President, any attempt to remove Rod Rosenstein will create the exact same constitutional crisis as if you fired Special Counsel Mueller,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said earlier this year. “Don’t do it. Do not go down this path. For the sake of our country, we plead with you. Don’t put this country through a constitutional crisis.”
Sari Horwitz, Matt Zapotosky and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.