ANALYSIS | Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein denies he wanted to record Donald Trump in order to gather enough dirt to remove the president via the 25th amendment. But that’s not likely to be much solace to a president who is at war with his Justice Department.
The New York Times published a story Friday afternoon detailing alleged conversations Rosenstein had in the spring of 2017 about the circus-like operations that defined the West Wing in the early months of the Trump presidency. The deputy AG had only been in the job a few weeks, but was emotional and concerned when talking about his idea of secretly taping Trump with the goal of getting enough to trigger the 25th amendment — which provides a mechanism for the vice president and Cabinet members to begin the removal of a president from the Oval Office.
Moments after the article appeared online, Rosenstein’s office issued a statement calling the report “inaccurate and factually incorrect.”
“I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment,” said Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Justice Department’s Russia election meddling investigation.
That denial is unlikely to satisfy Trump, who has slammed and criticized Rosenstein and other DOJ leaders for over a year — especially since the article alleges the deputy AG told others he believed he could convince Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to go along with the recording and 25th amendment plan.
The president has called appointing Sessions a mistake and won’t rule out firing him after November’s congressional elections. He also has clashed with Kelly and reportedly talked to acquaintances about replacing him.
But the article comes amid Trump’s war with his own law enforcement apparatus, which he views as actively working to take him down. Trump did not mask his frustration with the country’s top law enforcement entities during a Thursday night campaign rally in Las Vegas, asking the crowd derisively: “How's the Justice Department doing?” His supporters responded, on cue, with loud boos and jeering. Here are three takeaways from the Times article and Rosenstein’s alleged plan.
The article is likely to anger Trump and he will have an opportunity to respond to it — and possibly publicly attack Rosenstein later Friday at a campaign rally in Missouri. Even if he doesn’t bring it up Friday evening, the war between DOJ and the White House is likely to only get more fierce.
The president is a “streetfighter” who always punches back, according to his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is traveling with Trump, had not responded to an email seeking comment on the Times article.
Eariler this week, Trump slammed Sessions in a Tuesday interview with Hill.TV, saying: “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”
“I’m so sad over Jeff Sessions because he came to me. He was the first senator that endorsed me. And he wanted to be attorney general, and I didn’t see it,” he said Tuesday.
And consider that, earlier this month, on the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Trump set aside the generally somber nature of the yearly remembrance to lash out at the FBI and Justice Department.
He took to Twitter to share a quote from Sara Carter, a self-described “national and international award winning investigative reporter” and Fox News commentator, on Lou Dobbs’ program on that network the previous night. “We have found nothing to show collusion between President Trump & Russia, absolutely zero, but every day we get more documentation showing collusion between the FBI & DOJ, the Hillary campaign, foreign spies & Russians, incredible,” Trump wrote, quoting Carter.
And in an Aug. 28 tweet, the president claimed Hillary Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of State — during which she used a private email server — were “hacked by China.” To Trump, that should warrant a FBI or DOJ probe. “Next move better be by the FBI & DOJ or,” he tweeted that day, “after all of their other missteps (Comey, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr, FISA, Dirty Dossier etc.), their credibility will be forever gone!”
Hillary Clinton’s Emails, many of which are Classified Information, got hacked by China. Next move better be by the FBI & DOJ or, after all of their other missteps (Comey, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr, FISA, Dirty Dossier etc.), their credibility will be forever gone!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018
The article comes just over a month before voters will decide which party will control the House and Senate. It also shows that major media outlets are using their resources to report out details contained in Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” which contained the 25th amendment chatter, but sourced it to unnamed senior officials.
Other similar articles are sure coming, and Rosenstein could be the focal point of those, as well. Based on the Times’ reporting, it appears he harbored some concerns about Trump, at least in the earlier days of his presidency.
That leaves the door open to an October surprise should the president decide a Justice Department purge like Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era “Saturday Night Massacre” cannot wait until after Election Day. Might Trump decide he simply cannot trust Sessions and Rosenstein? Firing one or both could spell a premature end to Special Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia election meddling and obstruction of justice investigation.
And what might happen next, especially if Democrats take the House in November, is anyone’s guess.
Republican lawmakers are not in Washington Friday. Don’t expect many to sound off on the Times article or what Rosenstein allegedly said and wanted to do.
Democratic lawmakers have said their GOP colleagues privately express grave concerns about the president behind closed doors. Publicly, Republicans have warned Trump against firing Sessions and Rosenstein — even though Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently walked back previous warnings about that panel refusing to confirm any replacements if either were terminated.
That’s a sign that, so long as Republicans control both chambers, if Trump wants to use the Times report as justification to fire one or both top Justice Department officials, Republican lawmakers would make some noise — but ultimately do nothing to check Trump.