Rosenstein in Washington D.C., July 13, 2018.
By JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock.
At the beginning of one of the most consequential weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, an enormous smoke bomb was detonated in the news cycle when Axios, deeply wired in Trump’s West Wing, reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. Quickly, a head-spinning array of conflicting accounts were put forth: had he been fired? Was he heading to the White House to be fired—or was he going to a regularly scheduled meeting? Finally, Sarah Huckabee Sanders brought a measure of clarity by tweeting that whatever was going to happen to Rosenstein would happen on Thursday, when the president returned from New York.
For all the morning’s madness, there may have been an underlying logic. Over the weekend, as Brett Kavanaugh’s prospects appeared increasingly imperiled, Trump faced two tactical options, both of them fraught. One was to cut Kavanaugh loose. But he was also looking for ways to dramatically shift the news cycle away from his embattled Supreme Court nominee. According to a source briefed on Trump’s thinking, Trump decided that firing Rosenstein would knock Kavanaugh out of the news, potentially saving his nomination and Republicans’ chances for keeping the Senate. “The strategy was to try and do something really big,” the source said. The leak about Rosenstein’s resignation could have been the result, and it certainly had the desired effect of driving Kavanaugh out of the news for a few hours.
Rosenstein still has his job, at least until Thursday, leaving open multiple possibilities regarding the underlying reality. Regardless, Trump has wanted to fire Rosenstein from the moment he read the New York Times article that reported Rosenstein had discussed secretly tape-recording Trump and rallying Cabinet secretaries to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. (Rosenstein has denied the account.) Some outside advisers, including Sean Hannity, have cautioned that the Times story was a trap to get Trump to fire Rosenstein and trigger a Saturday Night Massacre-like crisis that, however temporarily successful, would leave Democrats holding almost all the cards.
The confusion surrounding Rosenstein’s tenure may not give Kavanaugh a reprieve. In public, Trump continues to voice support for his embattled Supreme Court nominee, telling reporters at the United Nations earlier this morning that he stands with Kavanaugh “all the way.” But in private, Trump is growing increasingly frustrated by being mired in a deteriorating political situation beyond his control. On Monday morning, a Republican briefed on Trump’s thinking said the president has been considering pulling Kavanaugh’s nomination.
According to the source, Trump allies are imploring him to cut Kavanaugh loose for the sake of saving Republicans’ electoral chances in the midterms. The argument these advisers are making is that if Kavanaugh’s nomination fails, demoralized Republicans will stay home in November, and Democrats will take the House and the Senate and initiate impeachment proceedings. The end result: Trump will be removed from office. “The stakes are that high,” the source said. Another Republican adviser told me: “Trump is very worried now, and is finally waking up that it’s the end of his presidency if he loses the Senate.” Trump’s outside allies are advising him to nominate Amy Coney Barrett and fast-track her confirmation before the midterms. “Some in the White House think you can only appoint a woman now,” a former administration official told me. An outside adviser added: “Democrats won’t be able to pivot fast enough to attack her, since she’s a woman.”
Even before Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer reported Deborah Ramirez’s account that Kavanaugh exposed his penis without her consent at Yale (which Kavanaugh emphatically denies), Trump has been unhappy with how Senate Republicans are handling the nomination process. According to sources, Trump blamed Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley for agreeing to delay Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony until Thursday. “He thinks they look weak,” a Republican briefed on Trump’s thinking said. A White House official told me Trump was also angry that Senate Republicans waited hours to respond to Ford’s interview with The Washington Post, creating a vacuum in the news cycle that allowed the narrative to take hold. “You don’t let that happen,” the official said.
Last week, White House advisers, including Johnny DeStefano, implored Trump not to attack Dr. Ford. A source said Bill Shine and Corey Lewandowski were pushing a more aggressive approach. Trump listened to the moderates until Friday, until he reverted to form and tweeted: “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”
As Kavanaugh’s poll numbers plummet, Trump is telling people in private that he was never a fan of Kavanaugh’s selection, sources said. According to two people who’ve spoken with Trump recently, Trump complained that establishment Republicans foisted Kavanaugh on him, because they reasoned Kavanaugh would unite the party in November. According to one former West Wing official, Trump’s first choice was Judge Thomas Hardiman, who served on the federal bench alongside Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry.
Trump is keeping his distance from the nominee. A White House official said he hasn’t spoken with Kavanaugh in recent days. “This is Brett Kavanaugh’s fight,” the White House official said.
Update: an earlier version of this article said Axios had reported Rosenstein “offered to resign.” The original Axios report said Rosenstein had verbally resigned.