Rosenstein faces Trump showdown

Rosenstein faces Trump showdown
© Anna Moneymaker

Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinRosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe Judge rules former WH counsel McGahn must testify under subpoena MORE faces a high-stakes meeting on Thursday with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE that may determine his future as the Department of Justice official charged with overseeing special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts 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 CollinsSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump Democrats spend big to put Senate in play 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 JordanDemocrats object to Meadows passing note to Jordan from dais Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment Horowitz to appear before second Senate panel next week 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 SessionsLisa Page sues DOJ, FBI over alleged privacy violations Sessions leads GOP Senate primary field in Alabama, internal poll shows Trump rebukes FBI chief Wray over inspector general's Russia inquiry 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.”