Washington flew into a frenzy on Monday morning following initial reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was expected to leave his job. But hours later, he was attending a scheduled meeting at the White House.
Rosenstein’s job was thrown into question after The New York Times reported on Friday that he had discussed wearing a wire around President Donald Trump and advocated invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. Rosenstein vehemently denied the allegations in the article, and subsequent news reports also called some of its details into question.
The White House and the Justice Department offered differing accounts following the conflicting reports about Rosenstein’s highly publicized trip to the White House on Monday.
White House officials told The Washington Post that Rosenstein had been expected to resign in the wake of The Times’ story. But a Justice Department official told The Post that Rosenstein went there expecting to be fired and did not offer to resign, despite having weighed the option over the weekend.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that Rosenstein had an “extended conversation” with the president about the news on Monday and that the two would meet again on Thursday.
In the aftermath of a wild morning, DOJ veterans and current and former intelligence officials expressed relief that the deputy attorney general remains in his position.
‘He is the only person, the one buffer, protecting Mueller’
Robert Mueller. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
If Rosenstein were to step down, said one current FBI agent who requested anonymity to speak about internal matters, “Mueller’s finished.”
The agent was referring to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favor. Rosenstein oversees the Russia investigation.
Bob Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and the National Security Agency, said one of the biggest questions that would arise should Rosenstein be ousted would be: “If not he, who?”
“Someone else would become deputy attorney general, and if it isn’t someone like Rod — who has enormous integrity and is smart and honest — then who?” Deitz said. “And when someone great leaves, all it does is open up the possibility that some hack will be appointed in their place.”
Following the mix-up on Monday over whether Rosenstein would resign or be fired, Vanity Fair reported that Trump, said to be looking to shift the news cycle away from Brett Kavanaugh, his embattled Supreme Court nominee, decided that firing Rosenstein could take some of the heat off Kavanaugh.
“The strategy was to try and do something really big,” Vanity Fair quoted one anonymous source “briefed on Trump’s thinking” as saying. The report said the leak about Rosenstein’s potential resignation could have been the result of that calculus.
If Rosenstein were to resign, “it would be disappointing because he would abdicate his responsibility,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor. “He is the only person, the one buffer, protecting Mueller.”
Mueller is authorized to investigate not only Russia’s interference in the election, but any matters that may arise as a result. Federal guidelines also give him broad authority, saying that he is not subject “to the day-to-day supervision of any official of the department.”
But Cramer warned that the biggest danger stemming from a Rosenstein ouster had nothing to do with his replacement potentially ending the Russia investigation, because the political blowback from such a move would be too much.
“Keep in mind that Mueller can’t indict anyone or do anything of importance without the approval of whoever’s overseeing him,” he said. “That puts that person in a very powerful position. They won’t shut it down, but they can slow-walk the investigation. That’s the biggest concern.”
‘Quitting is basically handing the president victory on a silver platter’
Donald Trump. Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images
If Rosenstein were to resign rather than be fired, “it would play into Trump’s hands,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA operative.
The president has long targeted Rosenstein and other DOJ officials who he believes are working against him.
If Rosenstein were to step down, Carle said, it would solve one of Trump’s problems without adding another layer to a growing obstruction-of-justice case against him.
Carle added that it would also allow the president to appoint a loyalist to oversee Mueller, which could “deal a grievous blow to the idea of the Justice Department serving the Constitution and the laws rather than an individual.”
“If he gets fired, he gets fired,” he said of Rosenstein. “There’s some nobility in that. Quitting is basically handing the president victory on a silver platter.”
Another current FBI agent said there was “no doubt that rank and file would be angry if Rod Rosenstein stepped down or got fired because of that NYT report.”
“Many were on high alert this morning,” they added.
But they said Mueller had also taken steps to ensure that certain divisions of the DOJ and the FBI are briefed so they could continue the investigation if Trump fires him or Rosenstein.
If Rosenstein “is fired or resigned, that’s a blow to the public-facing aspect of the investigation, but it in no way means the entire thing would be shut down,” they said.
“The president would have to fire everybody at the FBI and DOJ for that to happen.”