ANALYSIS — Circumstance, confusion and chaos have collided to ensure Thursday will be one of the most consequential — and perhaps the most by a wide margin — days of the tumultuous Trump presidency.
Washington has rarely seen the kind of spectacle ahead in just a few days, and the inevitable ramifications will trigger ripple waves that will be immediately apparent but not fully known until voters head to the ballot box on Nov. 6. For President Donald Trump, the already high stakes seem to only grow by the day.
The president is in New York through at least Wednesday evening for a United Nations conference, and he kicked off the gathering of world leaders with morning remarks at an event on combating the opioid crisis. By 9 a.m., he was back inside Trump Tower in Manhattan after a brisk mile-long motorcade ride from U.N. headquarters.
By 10:45 a.m., Axios sent Washington into a frenzy by publishing a report that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein planned to resign Monday after a Friday New York Times report cited multiple sources saying he talked openly in 2017 about secretly recording Trump with the goal of using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
Democratic lawmakers responded quickly, with statements and tweets warning the president to keep Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s Russia election meddling investigation. They and other Trump critics warned removing the No. 2 at the Justice Department could spawn a constitutional crisis.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted that if Trump terminated Rosenstein, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “must immediately allow a vote on legislation to protect Special Counsel Mueller’s ability to #FollowTheFacts.”
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Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser to former President Barack Obama, suggested the Trump team had floated the idea of firing Rosenstein to hijack the day’s media narrative. “Nothing like a Constitutional crisis to distract from a Supreme Court Confirmation crisis,” he tweeted.
Some 230 miles south, White House aides not in New York with Trump huddled in meetings much of the day. Television crews, clad in rain gear, climbed small ladders and pointed their cameras toward a side entrance to the West Wing frequently used by Cabinet and other senior officials.
As rain pitter-pattered off journalists trying to confirm Rosenstein was inside one of the black SUVs parked on West Executive Avenue, chaos and uncertainty dominated. It seemed fitting that the Secret Service was testing the security system outside the White House, the sound of the alarm repeatedly piercing through everything on the rainy grounds. A message played each time informing those within earshot that “this is only a test.”
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Conflicting reports surfaced that Rosenstein was either resigning on his own accord or going to force White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, acting as Trump’s proxy, to fire him. In the end, neither happened. Instead, Rosenstein kept his job and pinch-hit at a “principals meeting” of national security officials for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who started his day in Alabama.
Trump is slated to return to Washington on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. The latter already was shaping up as a day that would shape Trump’s legacy, with the Senate Judiciary Committee planning an open hearing so senators can hear from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while at a party in high school.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders eventually issued a statement saying Trump and Rosenstein had “an extended conversation” over the phone to discuss the Friday Times report and announcing the duo will meet Thursday, adding to what is shaping up to be a day of high drama on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Like outside the White House, Monday’s Rosenstein drama was only a test. But Kavanaugh’s nomination is hanging in the balance, and Trump on Monday afternoon did not rule out firing Rosenstein in just three days.
“We will be determining what to do,” he told reporters in New York. “I spoke with Rod today, and we’ll see what happens.”
Trump’s presidency has often felt like a reality television show, and the president himself has at times appeared to be its executive producer, chief writer and star. With so much now at stake for Trump — and with Election Day a little more than a month away, Thursday is set to resemble the march to the inevitable season finale.
Since it’s the Trump Show, expect more than a few cliffhangers.