Tensions between Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and President Donald Trump’s congressional allies have reached a boiling point — and it could pave the way for the Justice Department’s No. 2 to lose his job in the coming weeks.
According to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus and a staunch Trump defender against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, top House lawmakers called Rosenstein to testify in a joint private session of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees.
Endorsed by Republican leadership, the announcement comes one week after reports that Rosenstein plotted to secretly record conversations with Trump and conspire with other administration officials to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. The accounts came from memos written by Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s director at the time of the reported comments last year.
Rosenstein fervently denies the reports but agreed to a closed-door interview. Were he not to show up, Meadows tweeted on Friday morning, “we will subpoena him.”
Andrew Wright, a former White House lawyer, told me, “If I were in Congress and I read the McCabe memoranda, I would want to know more about these issues, especially the 25th Amendment issue since that contemplates a congressional vote.” But, he added, “this looks like a blatant attempt by Rep. Meadows to bully Rosenstein into resigning or to provoke President Trump to fire him.”
It’s certainly a precarious moment for the deputy attorney general; his fate has hung in the balance for days.
After the damning New York Times report was published on Friday, September 21, Rosenstein reportedly offered to resign the following Monday morning in a conversation with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, out of fear he would be fired. He then planned to speak with Trump this Thursday, but the hearings over sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh led the White House to postpone the conversation to next week.
Congressional conservatives, meanwhile, want to chat with Rosenstein.
“You can’t have the guy who’s running the Justice Department talking about recording the commander in chief, even if it’s done in a joking, sarcastic manner,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), one of the Justice Department’s chief critics and a top Trump ally, said on Thursday. “[W]e should be able to ask questions about what took place in that meeting.”
Trump, for his part, told reporters the day before, “I would much prefer keeping Rod Rosenstein. … Many people say I have the right to absolutely fire him. He said he did not say it. He said he does not believe that. And nobody in this room believes it.”
Rosenstein’s ouster would be a big blow to Mueller
Rosenstein is responsible for overseeing Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 US presidential election. That’s because Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rosenstein’s boss, recused himself from the probe after it became clear he’d provided false and misleading testimony to Congress about his own contacts with Russia.
Rosenstein’s possible departure would strike at the heart of the Trump-Russia investigation because Mueller has to run major investigative decisions past the deputy attorney general.
Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who would replace Rosenstein if he left, could simply refuse to approve Mueller’s requests. That would slow the whole investigation to a crawl — or lead to Mueller’s ouster if he felt there was a reason for it.
Rosenstein, to this point, has appeared to give Mueller relatively free rein.
He’s allowed Mueller’s probe to proceed unimpeded, while Mueller indicted top members of Trump’s campaign, including former campaign chair Paul Manafort, on tax, financial, and bank fraud charges. Manafort later pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy against the US and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and is now cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
And while GOP leadership and their supporters don’t like Rosenstein for this, they also say that removing him could further damage Trump.
But what’s clear is that the future of the Mueller probe, and possibly even Trump’s presidency, depends on how Rosenstein does his job. That all goes up in the air if Rosenstein soon loses it.