President Donald Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will meet Thursday, the White House said Monday, leaving the No. 2 DOJ official’s position in limbo following reports last week that he discussed wearing a wire to record Trump.
The statement came after nearly three hours of confusion Monday morning about Rosenstein’s status at the Justice Department. The DOJ official went to the White House early before a scheduled meeting, and a person familiar with his thinking said he expected to be fired. But other reports said Rosenstein was weighing resigning.
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“At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
“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,” she said.
It is unclear what Rosenstein’s fate will be following that meeting. He attended a noon national security meeting at the White House and is still in his post for now, the person familiar with his thinking said. He arrived back to the Department of Justice after 1 p.m.
Rosenstein has not submitted his resignation, this person said, but he and White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke about his tenure on Saturday. A person close to the White House said that, as of this weekend, Trump had no immediate plans to fire Rosenstein.
If he is fired or quits, his exit under pressure would send shockwaves through the Justice Department and raise questions about the supervision of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any Trump aides helped. Rosenstein has overseen Mueller’s investigation. Mueller’s office declined to comment Monday.
Rosenstein’s next-closest subordinate, associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, departed the Justice Department earlier this year and has yet to be replaced. That leaves Solicitor General Noel Francisco as the next in line to supervise the Mueller probe.
The New York Times reported Friday that Rosenstein had floated wearing a wire to record Trump in the midst of what he perceived as chaos in the administration, and it also reported that he had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Rosenstein and his allies have fiercely disputed the account, and they said Rosenstein was being sarcastic when he proposed wearing a wire.
Trump has long called the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt,” but several of his key associates — including former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg — are now cooperating with federal prosecutors in their investigation of the president, his business practices and his 2016 White House campaign.
Rosenstein took on the Mueller probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself last year over concerns that he had misled Congress during his confirmation hearings about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.
Since then, Trump has accused Rosenstein, a Republican, of having a conflict of interest in overseeing the investigation because he signed off on a 2016 application to conduct surveillance of former Trump campaign official Carter Page. Trump has also harped on Rosenstein’s authorship of a memo criticizing former FBI director James Comey in 2017, an action that Mueller is now investigating as a potential attempt by the president to obstruct the FBI investigation into his campaign.
“Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter),” Trump tweeted in mid-April. “No Collusion, so they go crazy!”
GOP lawmakers have complained that Rosenstein would not hand over some sensitive documents relating to the FBI’s investigation into 2016 election interference, arguing the documents might imperil ongoing law enforcement work. Reps. Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) even filed articles of impeachment in July over the standoff.
Trump allies — from one-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to former chief strategist Steve Bannon — have long urged the president to dismiss Rosenstein, who also authorized the raid in April on Cohen’s home, office and hotel room. That move was a prelude to the Trump lawyer pleading guilty this summer to a slate of eight charges of tax evasion, financial fraud and campaign finance violations. Cohen has since met with Mueller’s investigators in a bid to reduce his expected prison sentence.
Rosenstein said in congressional testimony last year that he would refuse to fire Mueller unless the special prosecutor — a former FBI director who worked for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — had engaged in some misconduct.
“I would follow the regulation. If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not,” Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee last December.
To date, Mueller’s investigation has netted guilty pleas from Manafort and his former business partner Rick Gates, ex-Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and one-time Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. The special counsel has also indicted a dozen Russian military officials who were accused of hacking into two Democratic Party computer systems to roil the 2016 presidential election.
While the special counsel probe has no deadline, Comey told St. Louis Public Radio earlier this month that Mueller’s cooperation agreement from Manafort “may represent that we’re in the fourth quarter.”
While Trump has agitated for the Mueller probe to shut down, former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said Rosenstein’s possible exit could have unintended consequences.
“A change in supervisors could actually prolong things,” he told POLITICO recently.
But Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, compared Rosenstein’s possible departure to the Saturday Night Massacre under the Nixon administration.
“This is the next step in the slow, slowly evolving, slow motion Saturday night massacre,” Nadler said during an interview on CNN. “Getting rid of all the people involved in initiating or carrying out the investigation of obstruction of justice by him.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Rosenstein should stay in his position to “protect the independence of the” Justice Department.”
“Under no circumstances should Rod Rosenstein resign,” Schiff tweeted. “This would place the Mueller investigation in even greater jeopardy. Rosenstein should continue to do his job, protect the independence of the DOJ, and if the President intends to obstruct justice, force Trump to fire him.”
The tumult at the top of the Justice Department is in some ways unsurprising given that both Sessions and Rosenstein exits appeared imminent after the midterms.
“I think we find ourselves in roughly the same position we expected to be. There’d be some new person’s hands on the tiller of the Mueller investigation, but a couple months early,” said a defense attorney who represents a senior Trump official in the Russia probe.
Friends of Rosenstein’s say the No. 2 DOJ official has long been prepared to lose his job.
“Rod is not foolhardy. He’s not oblivious. But he also has developed really thick skin about his own job and a very fatalistic approach about his job,” said James Trusty, a former DOJ official who worked under Rosenstein when he was U.S. attorney in Maryland.
Rosenstein’s mantra during the Trump administration, Trusty added, was: “When it happens, it happens. But until it happens, I’m going to do my job.”
Eliana Johnson and Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.