Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—who has been living on Donald Trump’s death row for more than a year—moved a whole cellblock closer to the gallows on Friday after the New York Times dropped this news-cycle cleansing scoop: The piece alleges that in May 2017 he discussed surreptitiously recording the president and raised using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. At press time, Rosenstein had not been given his last meal or last rites, but the story and the follow-ups by other press hounds have given Trump every pretext he might need to terminate the man who oversees special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.
Rosenstein was livid at Trump in the administration’s early and often chaotic days. As the authors of Friday’s exposé, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt, previously wrote for their paper in June, Rosenstein felt the president used him to justify the firing of FBI director James B. Comey, and was vocally angry at the White House about the way it bruised his reputation. “According to one person with whom he spoke shortly after Mr. Comey’s firing, Mr. Rosenstein was ‘shaken,’ ‘unsteady’ and ‘overwhelmed,’” the Times reporters wrote back then.
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There’s little chance the new Times story was somehow “planted” by the White House to give Trump a ginned up reason to stage another Saturday Night Massacre. Goldman told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Friday night that the piece has taken “months to report.” Its findings have also been buttressed by the Washington Post, which in some ways expands on it. According to the Post, two FBI officials—then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and his senior counsel, Lisa Page—wrote contemporaneous memos in May 2017 reporting that “Rosenstein suggested candidates interviewing for the FBI job should wear a recording device to memorialize their discussions with the president.” McCabe’s memo also mentions Rosenstein’s invocation of the 25th Amendment to corral Trump (Page’s doesn’t). Most spectacularly, Rosenstein seems to have believed that he could enlist both his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly in his 25th Amendment caper.
There’s a Rashomon quality to the news reports of Rosenstein’s alleging scheming, with some giving more credence to the source provided by the Department of Justice who says in the Times story and elsewhere that Rosenstein’s “wire” comment was sarcastic—not meant to be taken seriously. Adding to the murk, the Post also reports, “One person familiar with McCabe’s account said Rosenstein brought up the idea of recording Trump on two separate occasions that day.” Because there was more than one meeting in the relevant period, the Post explains, perhaps the explanation for the conflicting accounts is that they could have had different attendees. But the Times’ version, citing “one participant” in one of the meetings, says that Rosenstein “replied animatedly” when asked if he were serious.
Never one to let a breaking news-hook go to waste, President Trump alluded to the Times story at his Friday evening rally in Springfield, Missouri. “Look what’s being exposed at the Department of Justice and the FBI,” Trump said. “You see what’s happening at the FBI—they’re all gone, they’re all gone. But there’s a lingering stench and we’re going to get rid of that too.” (Some of Trump’s most perfervid supporters, including Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, wondered why Rosenstein hadn’t been dispatched before sundown—though, notably, Sean Hannity cautioned the president that it could be a trap set by his enemies.)
About an hour after Trump’s speech, Rosenstein added additional soft-focus to the murk with his second statement to the Times finding.
“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,” Rosenstein said in what amounted to an appeal for clemency.
You don’t have to be the deputy attorney general to spot the elements of non-denial denial in the Rosenstein protestation. Saying you “never pursued or authorized recording the president” is not the same as saying you never proposed it. Likewise, bringing up the 25th Amendment in conversation with McCabe and musing that one could enlist Kelly and Sessions in the effort, as the Times says Rosenstein did, doesn’t necessarily rise to advocating the removal of the president.
Rosenstein’s semantic mousing around all but confirms the Times story. Even a good number of Trump’s enemies would concede that he shouldn’t have to harbor a coup plotter on his staff. “When you strike at a king, you must kill him,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson—or was it Omar from The Wire?—once put it. Rosenstein’s conduct has made him his own executioner.
The Times scoop and follow-up will launch a million speculative pieces about what comes next. Will Trump order a twin gallows and usher Sessions to his reward at the same time? Sacking the two of them won’t automatically end the Russia investigation, which eats at Trump’s backside like a million hungry chiggers. My colleague Josh Gerstein has gamed out the dance of musical chairs that will follow what now appears to be the inevitable sacking of Rosenstein, and I invite you to partake of his erudition or accept my shortforming of his work: Trump can’t reliably fire his way out the investigative dilemma he has trapped himself in. Mueller could fight his dismissal in court, Gerstein writes. Besides, the investigation is now too rooted in the files of other federal prosecutors (notably the Southern District of New York) and too alluring a topic for state attorneys general—over whom Trump has no power—to ignore should the special counsel go down. And if the Democrats take the House of Representatives in November, they’ll be able to use their independent investigative powers to pursue the president for at least the next two years.
So, yes, Rosenstein is a dead man. But Trump is a dead man walking.
Send foolproof schemes for my sacking to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts would rather resign than be fired. My Twitter feed would probably fight its dismissal in court. My RSS feed would ask, “How good is my severance?”