Rosenstein Remains Deputy Attorney General Following White House Meeting — For Now

17 hours ago
Originally published on September 24, 2018 3:50 pm

Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remained in his job on Monday afternoon after a visit to the White House that sparked a flurry of reports suggesting he might resign or be fired.

A person close to Rosenstein said he was expecting to be fired after the New York Times story on Friday about his early tenure in office. The deputy attorney general oversees the special counsel's Russia investigation, which has made Rosenstein's job security part of the long-running political battle over the probe.

For now, at least, Rosenstein keeps his job as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department. But the White House says Rosenstein will return on Thursday for another meeting with President Trump, who is currently New York City for the United Nations General Assembly.

At Rosenstein's request, he and Trump on Monday "had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Rosenstein is scheduled to return for another conversation in person with the president, she said.

In New York, reporters asked Trump whether Rosenstein would be fired. He looked ahead to the Thursday sit-down, saying, "We'll be meeting in the White House and determining what's going on."

The renewed questions over Rosenstein's fate follows a report Friday in the Times that said Rosenstein discussed secretly recording Trump and enlisting other Cabinet officers to remove him from power under the 25th Amendment in the spring of 2017.

Rosenstein twice denied the report.

Some news organizations earlier Monday reported that Rosenstein had submitted a verbal resignation to White House officials. He may have talked about it with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly without actually committing to submit the resignation. The situation was confused and unclear.

The implications

The nature of any departure by Rosenstein is important; if he were to resign, federal law countenances Trump replacing him on an interim basis with another Senate-confirmed leader.

If Rosenstein were to make clear to Trump that he will not step down and that Trump must exert himself in order to terminate him, that makes it more complicated to install another deputy attorney general quickly.

One big immediate question that would be raised no matter how Rosenstein left the Justice Department is who would take charge of the special counsel investigation, or whether Trump might try separately to end or constrain it.

The wire

Months of political sandblasting came to a flashpoint on Friday in the Times story, which described the atmosphere of chaos inside the government after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.

As the leaders of the Justice Department scrambled to respond, Rosenstein reportedly suggested that FBI leaders interviewing to replace Comey should wear a recording device and secretly capture their conversations with the president, according to The Times.

Subsequent reports then suggested that Rosenstein was being facetious.

His statement didn't deny that he'd had the discussions, only that he never acted on whatever was discussed.

"I never pursued or authorized recording the president and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the president is absolutely false," Rosenstein said.

Trump appears to have taken the stories seriously; he said at a political rally that there remained a "lingering stench" to be removed from the Justice Department even after all the earlier removals there.

Face of the Russia investigation

It was Rosenstein, to Trump's frustration, who appointed Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller after Trump fired Comey.

And it has been Rosenstein, in place of a reticent, camera-averse Mueller, who has conducted the major press briefings and made the visits to Capitol Hill since then.

Rosenstein also drew the ire of Trump and his allies when it emerged that he had signed the final application for surveillance on Trump's onetime junior campaign aide, Carter Page.

Rosenstein was one of two Justice Department officials who continued to request that surveillance even after Trump's inauguration, which suggested that it was yielding valid foreign intelligence.

For the president and his supporters, especially House Republicans on the judiciary, intelligence and oversight committees, that meant putting a bull's-eye on Rosenstein. Trump and his supporters argue the Justice Department has run amok with "bias" and abuse of power, which they say includes inappropriate snooping on Trump's campaign in 2016.

Rosenstein has defended himself and the work of federal law enforcement, but he has been fighting a months-long rearguard action against criticism by the president and House Republicans.

Intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Judiciary Committee members including Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, accuse Rosenstein of stonewalling and foot-dragging congressional requests for information about the Russia investigation.

They've complained about the FBI's surveillance of Page and its use of a confidential human source in 2016, who met and talked with a few Trump campaign workers as the FBI sought to investigate the "active measures" that Russia had directed against the United States.

North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, a staunch Trump ally who led an unsuccessful effort this summer to impeach Rosenstein, said on Monday that Rosenstein continues holding out on information that Congress needs.

Meadows said the current Republican administration of the Justice Department is as bad as he argues the Democratic one was under President Obama.

"Under Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice has had just as much of a transparency problem as it did even under Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch — the bar for which is extremely low," Meadows said.

Through it all, however, Mueller's office and the Justice Department have steadily added to the tally of criminal charges involving Russian operatives or onetime close associates of Trump. Some two dozen Russians have been charged.

Trump's former longtime fixer and attorney, his onetime campaign chairman, vice chairman, national security adviser and others also have pleaded guilty or been convicted, although so far no one has been charged with conspiring directly with the Russian attack on the 2016 election.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Rod Rosenstein is still the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department despite conflicting reports about his fate earlier today. TV cameras recorded him leaving his home for a meeting at the White House. A short while later, press secretary Sarah Sanders announced President Trump would meet Thursday with Rosenstein. The job security of the lawyer who oversees the special counsel investigation is far from clear. NPR national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to help us sort it out. Hey there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So the day started with this report in the news outlet Axios that Rosenstein, the second in command at the Justice Department, had offered his resignation. How did things reach that point?

JOHNSON: Well, this chaos all began with an extraordinary report in The New York Times last week that Rod Rosenstein talked about wearing a wire to record the president last year and that he started a conversation about invoking the 25th Amendment on the basis that Donald Trump was not fit to serve. Now, Rosenstein denied ever approving or taking steps to record Trump, and he says he never advocated pushing Trump out of office.

But the president, of course, reacted pretty strongly, telling a crowd over the weekend it was time to remove the lingering stench from the Justice Department. And Trump told Geraldo Rivera's radio show that he would make a determination about what to do next. Some Republicans in Congress are warning the White House not to make big changes at the Justice Department until after the November elections.

CORNISH: In the meantime, where do things stand for Rosenstein right now?

JOHNSON: Well, a source close to Rod Rosenstein tells me he did not offer to resign. He did talk with the White House chief of staff John Kelly over the weekend, and they may have discussed some terms. It's not clear what those were in terms of timing or promises about insulating the Russia investigation or whatnot. In any event, things were left up in the air this weekend. And then Rod Rosenstein was seen headed to the White House today. People close to him told me he expected to be fired there, but that did not happen. Rod Rosenstein survives for at least another few days in this hothouse environment.

CORNISH: Now, this sent all of kind of political Washington into overdrive, right? What are some of the things that people are saying?

JOHNSON: Well, Democrats in Congress expressed a lot of alarm. They're warning the special counsel probe, which Rosenstein supervises, could be in jeopardy. They're worried that whoever replaces the deputy attorney general could block new criminal charges or other steps in that investigation of Russian election interference. And there were some new calls today to pass legislation to try to protect the special counsel Robert Mueller from Rod Rosenstein's friends. There was a mixed reaction.

He's been in a state of crisis since he took this job last year. It's already the hardest job in the Justice Department. And lawyers for President Trump seized on the news that Rosenstein might be out. Attorney Jay Sekulow says if Rosenstein goes, it's time for this whole special counsel investigation to get a timeout.

CORNISH: Given all that you've just said, what is the succession plan if Rosenstein were to be fired?

JOHNSON: Audie, things could change here. I feel like I'm saying that caveat all the time, as they do several times a day, if not several times an hour in Washington. Bear with me - this gets a little knotty. One person is telling me the former Iowa U.S. attorney, Matt Whitaker, could become the acting deputy attorney general if Rosenstein goes. Whitaker's currently the chief of staff to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

As for who would supervise the special counsel, this person says it would likely be the solicitor general, Noel Francisco. Noel Francisco has been on the record in the past of being kind of leery about special counsels or special prosecutors, but he's also pretty close to Rod Rosenstein.

If he were to step aside - Noel Francisco - for any reason, that would put Steve Engel, who runs the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, next in line to oversee the Russia investigation. Steve Engel is a DOJ veteran, worked in the George W. Bush administration. And he's a former Supreme Court clerk. But he doesn't have experience as a prosecutor, and that experience could really come in handy supervising the most important criminal investigation at the Justice Department in the last generation or two.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson with that update. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.