Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, is expecting to be fired Monday, according to several reports.
As of Monday morning, when Rosenstein was en route to the White House, he was expecting to be fired, a source familiar with the situation told HuffPost. But the situation had shifted by midday, when Rosenstein was at the White House meeting. It wasn’t clear whether he would be fired, resign or stay on as deputy attorney general.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday in a statement that Rosenstein and Trump would meet again Thursday, once Trump had returned from the United Nations.
“At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories,” she said.
Axios reported that he had already verbally resigned Monday, in anticipation of Trump firing him. Such a move would be surprising, because it would give the White House more power to replace Rosenstein with someone willing to do Trump’s bidding.
Rosenstein’s potential departure follows a report by The New York Times on Friday that May 2017 ― just before he named Mueller as special counsel ― he’d suggested covertly recording the president in the White House and had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. Rosenstein firmly denied the allegations, and a Justice Department official who was in the room at the time insisted Rosenstein’s comments about wiring Trump were said in jest.
The Times report echoed an anonymous op-ed published by a senior Trump administration official in the Times earlier in September that described “early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment” to “start a complex process for removing the president.”
It’s unclear who would succeed Rosenstein. The No. 3 position, associate attorney general, has been vacant since February. Solicitor General Noel Francisco is next in line.
The president had long mistrusted Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller to take over the Russia investigation after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last year. Rosenstein began overseeing the probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in March 2017 following revelations about his contact with the Russian ambassador during the Trump campaign.
“This is all politically motivated. Rod Rosenstein doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. He’s a Democrat. He’s from Maryland,” Trump said, according to Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House, published in September. (Rosenstein is actually a lifelong Republican.) The Wall Street Journal reported in August that the relationship between Rosenstein and Trump had improved in recent months.
Along with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Rosenstein met with Trump at the White House in May to discuss the handling of the Russia investigation. The meeting followed a weekend of volatile tweets from the president suggesting that the FBI and the Justice Department may have surveilled his campaign at the request of the Obama administration.
“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” Trump tweeted on May 20.
The Justice Department said later in a statement that it would review whether political motivation impacted the Russia investigation. Rosenstein also responded to Trump in a statement: “If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action.”
Despite the reassurances, Republican lawmakers continued to question the legitimacy of the Russia investigation and accuse Rosenstein and the DOJ of working to undermine the Trump administration.
“Whenever you have brought issues to my attention, I have taken appropriate steps to remedy them,” Rosenstein responded. “Your use of this to attack me personally is deeply wrong.”
Sources close to Rosenstein told NBC News in April that the deputy attorney general was at peace with the possibility that he might lose his job.
In private conversations, the sources said, Rosenstein had frequently repeated the phrase “Here I stand,” referencing a quote attributed to 16th-century Protestant reformer and theologian Martin Luther.
Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Sessions, Rosenstein and the Justice Department, reportedly considered firing Rosenstein last summer and also attempted to fire Mueller around the same time, The New York Times reported.
An FBI raid on the office and hotel room Michael Cohen, who at the time was Trump’s personal lawyer, on April 9 renewed the president’s frustration. Rosenstein’s role in the raid came to light the following day, when the Times reported that he had personally signed off on the action. Investigators retrieved documents related to topics including the payment Trump’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” made to former adult film star Stormy Daniels, reported the Times.
The search warrant for the raid stemmed from a referral from Mueller’s team, but it was reportedly not related to the Russia investigation. Nonetheless, Trump used the opportunity to double down on his opposition to the probe.
Trump called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” and slammed Sessions for his decision to recuse himself from it.
“The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this,” the president said. “He certainly should have let us know if he was going to recuse himself, and we would have put a different attorney general in.”
Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation had left Rosenstein ― who was harder for Trump to control ― in charge of the probe. In March, Rosenstein affirmed his confidence in Mueller and his investigation.
“The special counsel is not an unguided missile,” he told USA Today. “I don’t believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel.”
Of his own position, he mused that he “anticipated that this would be a lower-profile job.”
The White House denies that it has done anything but cooperate with the investigation. But with Rosenstein out of the way, Trump could be one step closer to either removing Mueller or ensuring that the investigation plays out according to his wishes.
“He could install someone who would limit Mueller in subtle ways that are defensible,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, told The Washington Post. “Under the special counsel regulations, the attorney general ― or acting attorney general, in this case ― can ask Mueller for explanations of his actions and overrule them.”
Rosenstein’s job seemed potentially compromised earlier this year after the House Intelligence Committee voted to release to members of Congress a classified memo that listed him as one of three Justice Department officials who had signed off on surveillance applications. The memo, which was released publicly on Feb. 2 and was widely considered to be underwhelming, accused the Justice Department and the FBI of abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to spy on a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign before the 2016 election.
Rosenstein reportedly approved a FISA application to extend surveillance of Carter Page, a former Moscow-based investment banker who worked on Trump’s campaign.
Among the main contentions of the Intelligence Committee’s memo was that the FBI based that request on research financed by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. GOP members of Congress called it “absolutely shocking,” “sickening,” “jaw-dropping” and “worse than Watergate.”
But FISA experts viewed the memo with extreme skepticism. And the FBI said in a public statement ahead of its release that there were “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Democrats on the Intelligence Committee later released their own memo, which the Republican-led committee initially voted not to make public. In it, the Democrats offered a point-by-point rebuttal to the GOP document. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) also sent a letter to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee chairman and author of the memo, accusing him of making “material changes” to his memo after the full committee voted along party lines to release it and before it was sent to Trump to either make it public or block it.
In responding to the Cohen raid, Trump also lashed out at Rosenstein for signing off on the FISA application. House Republicans filed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein in July, accusing him of “knowingly hiding material investigative information from Congress” and failing “to comply with congressional subpoenas.”
Sessions defended the deputy attorney general after the impeachment filing, saying, “My deputy Rod Rosenstein is highly capable. I have the highest confidence in him.”