Recently, a New York Times report claimed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein discussed the idea of wearing a wire to record President Donald Trump and even talked about recruiting cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment, which would deem the commander-in-chief unfit to run the Oval Office, following the turmoil in the White House over the firing of then-FBI director James Comey.
While Rosenstein categorically denied the allegations, Trump reportedly asked associates if he should “just fire him.”
Three days after the bombshell report was published, a number of media outlets suddenly reported Rosenstein had left the Trump administration. While some, most notably Axios, claimed he had offered to resign from his position during a conversation with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, others speculated if he had actually been fired by Trump.
The rumors gave way to utter chaos in Washington, D.C. However, the confusion was put to rest after Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders revealed the deputy attorney general had just visited the White House for a scheduled meeting, where he also spoke with the president on the phone.
Her statement also made it clear Rosenstein still had his job – at least until he meets Trump on Thursday.
“At the request of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he and President Trump had an extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories,” Sanders said. “Because the president is at the United Nations General Assembly and has a full schedule with leaders from around the world, they will meet on Thursday when the president returns to Washington, D.C.”
To prove the meeting had ended on a positive note, Kelly even walked with Rosenstein to the gates of the White House, where news camera could see the two men shaking hands.
The president, who is currently in New York for the conference, also said he was looking forward to meet the DoJ official.
“I'm meeting with Rod Rosenstein on Thursday when I get back from all of these meetings,” Trump said. “And we'll be meeting at the White House, and we'll be determining what's going on. We want to have transparency, we want to have openness and I look forward to meeting with Rod at that time.”
With Rosenstein’s future seemingly hanging in balance, the question everyone should be asking is if his departure would affect special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election?
To put it in Trump’s words, the answer is: tremendously.
If Rosenstein were to leave the Department of Justice, either forcefully or of his own free will, it could potentially upend the investigation that appears to have become a nightmare for not only Trump but many of his associates and close friends.
It may not happen immediately, but the investigation, which Rosenstein oversees, can be significantly impeded by whoever replaces him.
The president, for obvious reasons, has reportedly wanted to shut down the ongoing probe for months now. However, the deputy attorney general, who appointed Mueller to investigate Russia’s alleged meddling and potential collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, was the only official standing in the administration’s way of doing so.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation, much to Trump’s dismay, Rosenstein took charge of the probe. After the president fired Comey, the deputy attorney general appointed Mueller as the special counsel and tasked him with investigating the matter.
While Mueller’s team indicted key players of the Trump team – such as former campaign chair Paul Manafort, it fell on Rosenstein to keep the temperamental commander-in-chief appeased while also supporting the investigators.
If Rosenstein were to depart, there would be no one standing between the administration and the special counsel. The fragile balance would be broken and Trump may even try to shut down the investigation – but the question is if he wields the power to do so.
“If Trump tries to shut down the investigation, he will provoke a constitutional crisis,” James Robenalt, attorney and Watergate expert, told Politifact. “Nixon did it to himself in 1973 by firing Cox (and calling it a witch-hunt). Trump may repeat that history.”
While it’s unclear if Trump can legally end the probe, the answer to who would oversee the probe in Rosenstein’s absence is pretty clear. Since Sessions has recused himself, the authority lies with Rosenstein.
Usually, in case of the departure of deputy attorney general, the associate attorney general becomes the first in commander. However, since that position is being filled on an acting basis, the solicitor general would become the next in line of succession.
Right now, that office is held by Noel Francisco. However, since his former law firm reportedly represented the Trump campaign during presidential election, his appointment could be problematic and spark controversy.
Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call