Rosenstein faces Trump showdown

Rosenstein faces Trump showdown
© Anna Moneymaker

Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinMueller’s real challenge Graham vows to push Trump’s AG pick through Judiciary Committee House GOP set to grill Comey MORE faces a high-stakes meeting on Thursday with President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE that may determine his future as the Department of Justice official charged with overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation.

The White House punctuated hours of speculation about Rosenstein’s future by revealing that Trump and the No. 2 Justice Department official on Monday had an “extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories” and would meet in person on Thursday.

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The day began with reports that Rosenstein was headed to the White House with the expectation that he would be fired days after Friday’s bombshell New York Times report that he had discussed wearing a wire to record Trump as part of an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment and expel the president from office.

Rosenstein had denied that story, calling it false and issuing two statements that sought to dispel it.

Conflicting reports at midday on Monday had Rosenstein either resigning or expecting to be fired as he met at the White House with chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE. Cable news showed Rosenstein getting into an SUV for the ride, while social media watched with breathless anticipation.

The visit ended anticlimactically, with Rosenstein attending another White House meeting that had previously been scheduled — and with the mystery of his fate punted to Thursday, when Trump will be back in Washington after his trip to New York for annual meetings at the United Nations (U.N.).

“We’ll be determining what’s going on,” Trump told reporters Monday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. “We want to have transparency, we want to have openness, and I look forward to meeting with Rod at that time.”

Trump’s decision to meet Rosenstein on Thursday sets up a spectacular day.

At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump will meet with the official who appointed Mueller, instigating a process that has been an irritant for the president for more than a year. At the other end of the street, lawmakers will hear testimony from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and a woman accusing him of sexual misconduct.

Rosenstein’s ouster would put a new official in charge of the Russia investigation at a pivotal moment, opening Trump up to charges that he is seeking to quash the probe. Democrats on Monday were already comparing events to “The Saturday Night Massacre,” when several Justice officials resigned after then-President Nixon ordered the firing of a special prosecutor.

“This is the next step in a slowly evolving, slow-motion ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ in which the president is getting rid of all the people who were involved in initiating or carrying out the investigation of obstruction of justice by him,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said on CNN.

Some Republicans have also expressed worries. Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLobbying World Senators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe 5 themes to watch for in 2020 fight for House MORE (Maine) tweeted that she is “very concerned” over the prospect of Rosenstein being fired or forced to resign.

Others questioned whether the episode was a smokescreen intended to draw attention away from the Kavanaugh drama, the other story dominating Washington.

Rosenstein has been a frequent target of the right, and allies of the president say he should be fired if he really wanted to wear a wire to gather information on Trump.

“People have been fired for much less,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who echoed Republican allegations that the Justice Department has slow-walked document requests from Congress. “You should at some point face consequences for your actions and this is simply the last straw.”

Separately, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMeadows looks to make his move Comey’s confession: dossier not verified before, or after, FISA warrant Republicans missed best shot on keeping promise to cut spending MORE (R-Ohio), who has been critical of Rosenstein, is calling on him to testify before Congress about the allegations in the Times report.

Rosenstein has presided over Mueller’s investigation as it has pressed forward for 16 months, serving as acting attorney general with respect to the probe as a result of Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: Mueller closes in on Trump Mueller's findings don't matter The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe MORE’s recusal.

Should he resign or be fired, Solicitor General Noel Francisco would be next in line to oversee the investigation.

On Monday, Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, suggested there should be a “timeout” in the Mueller investigation should Rosenstein be removed.

“I think it’s really important that there be a step back taken here, and a review, and I think it’s a review that has to be thorough and complete, and a review that has to include an investigation of what has transpired,” Sekulow said.

With respect to Rosenstein’s role as deputy attorney general, his resignation would allow Trump to install an acting replacement who is not subject to Senate confirmation as a result of the Vacancies Act, though that official would not be able to also act as acting attorney general overseeing the Russia investigation.

“I think the implications are far greater for Rosenstein’s other functions where the president could pick someone who might not necessarily be Senate-confirmed,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.

It becomes murkier if Trump decides to fire Rosenstein, because the law does not say Trump can appoint an acting replacement for an official who is fired.

Firing Rosenstein could also have the adverse effect of opening up Trump to charges of obstruction, which Mueller is currently investigating as part of his sprawling probe.

“Folks will argue that,” said Vladeck, though he added, “I think the president would have a nonfrivolous argument that Rosenstein was fired for cause.”

Monday’s developments are the latest chapter in a months-long feud between the president and his top law enforcement officials over an investigation that he views as a politically driven “witch hunt” against him.

Trump has lashed out at Rosenstein and, more frequently, Sessions for their roles in the Russia probe, and some have suggested the president could fire Sessions after the midterm elections.

“We’ll see how it goes with Jeff,” Trump told Hill.TV in an exclusive interview last week. “I’m very disappointed in Jeff. Very disappointed.”