The New York Times dropped a Friday afternoon bombshell that accuses Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of suggesting in the Spring of 2017 that he or other Justice Department officials secretly record the president of the United States to provide evidence of his lack of fitness for office, and to begin 25th amendment proceedings to remove him from office for that very reason.
Rosenstein issued a statement denying the charges, but the reporters–Adam Goldman and Michael Schmidt–seem to have enough evidence to run the story with confidence that they’ve got it right. Among that evidence are reportedly memos created by Andrew McCabe that memorialized the conversations.
This is obviously a big story, and it could give Trump the justification he’s been seeking to fire Rosenstein and convince the Senate to confirm a replacement.
The first thing I did after reading the Times piece was revisit my archives to refresh my memory about the time period in question. I’ve put together a little timeline that includes the first four stories I wrote that mentioned Rosenstein and some of the key events that were occurring in the Russia investigation at the time:
February 14, 2017: Speaking one-on-one in the Oval Office, Trump brings up Michael Flynn to FBI Director James Comey. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump says of the Flynn case, according to Comey.
March 2, 2017: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who served as a top national security adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, recuses himself from any campaign-related investigations.
March 3, 2017: In testimony to Congress, FBI Director James Comey says: “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.”
March 19, 2017: Diane Feinstein’s Faith in America -The first mention of Rod Rosenstein in my archives. He comes up because Sen. Chuck Grassley is furiously refusing to move on the nomination for deputy attorney general until he gets answers about whether Trump associates are being investigated for possible collusion with the Russians.
March 20, 2017: The House Intelligence Committee holds its first public hearing. Comey admits that there is an ongoing FBI investigation into whether there were any links between individuals associated with the Russian government and the Trump campaign and whether they coordinated.
April 26, 2017: Rod Rosenstein is sworn in as deputy attorney general, giving him oversight of the Russia probe in the wake of Sessions’ recusal.
May 8, 2017: Rosenstein agrees to write a new memo supporting Comey’s dismissal, using Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation as the main rationale.
May 9, 2017: Comey is fired as FBI director.
May 10, 2017: Will Rod Rosenstein Keep His Promises? -Wherein I note that several Democratic senators voted against Rosenstein’s confirmation because he refused to make a firm commitment to the appointment of a special counsel, and that those Democrats who did vote to confirm him did so on the basis that he committed to appoint one if he deemed it necessary.
May 11, 2017: NYTs Editorial Board Flubs Letter to Rosenstein -Wherein I am critical of the editorial board for making the Russia investigation into too much of a partisan exercise, but also express skepticism that Rosenstein can impartially lead the investigation and insist that he appoint a special counsel.
May 17, 2017: Rosenstein appoints Robert Mueller as special counsel.
May 18, 2017: Man of Extraordinary Integrity Launches Witch Hunt– Wherein I laugh at the administration for extolling Rosenstein’s virtues to the rafters until the precise moment that he authorizes a special counsel.
It’s important to put this all in context. The president was clearly trying to obstruct the investigation of the election. He fired Comey for this reason, and initially said (falsely) that Rosenstein’s endorsement and memo were the reasons Comey was terminated.
According to the article, Rosenstein was also sitting in on interviews Trump was conducting in his search for a new FBI director, and he didn’t feel like the president was taking the process seriously or conducting himself with the bare minimum of competence necessary in the chief executive. For this, and other reasons, the prospect of unseating him seemed like a rational response.
Supposedly, Rosenstein was acting erratically at this time and was “not himself,” but nothing he is alleged to have done seems unjustifiable in retrospect.
On the other hand, if you shoot for the king, you best not miss. If he really was serious when he called for wearing a wire into meetings with the president and advocating others to do the same, and if he really did try to muster a 25th amendment challenge to Donald Trump’s presidency, then he is going to lose his job.
What protected Rosenstein before was the Senate’s protectiveness of the investigation, which is also why Jeff Sessions has not been fired. But Senate Republicans were already coming around to the idea that they can’t force an attorney general on the president in perpetuity. Moreover, they’d have to agree to confirm a replacement for Sessions next year. They are not going to insist that Trump continue to employ a deputy attorney general who actively plotted to bring him down.
I have no idea why these allegations did not emerge before now, and I don’t have a ton of confidence that the reporting is completely accurate in how it characterizes Rosenstein’s actions and motivations. But the story is out there now and it’s going to have big repercussions.