THE MORNING PLUM:

The question of whether President Trump obstructed justice leads inevitably back to his true rationale for firing former FBI director James B. Comey — and to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s apparent participation (witting or not) in the creation of a justification for that abrupt action.

The New York Times has some new reporting today on Rosenstein’s involvement in the Comey firing that brings this critical moment into much sharper focus — and raises further questions that, if answered, would lend a great deal to our understanding of what really drove Trump’s hatcheting of the man overseeing the probe into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian meddling in the election.

As you’ll recall, Rosenstein authored the memo (which criticized Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe) that Trump initially cited when he fired Comey. At the time, the White House claimed Trump had met with Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and then fired Comey on the strength of their recommendation. But that story fell apart under scrutiny, and Trump himself then admitted he had previously made the decision to fire Comey, and even that Comey’s handling of the Russia probe was bound up in his reason for doing so. Late last week, Rosenstein told lawmakers in a briefing that he knew Trump was going to fire Comey before he wrote the memo.

So what really happened in that meeting between Trump and Rosenstein? The Times, in a piece about Rosenstein’s effort to find his footing amid this scandal, reports this detail:

The day after the firing, in an at-times tense conversation with Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, Mr. Rosenstein stressed that he did not want to be part of an effort to obfuscate or “massage” the facts about it, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion.

Other reports have stressed that Rosenstein objected to being cast as the reason Trump fired Comey. But this goes further, suggesting that Rosenstein himself did not want to be implicated in obfuscating Trump’s real rationale for doing so.

To place this in its proper context, recall that Rosenstein frustrated Democratic lawmakers during the briefing of them last week when he refused to say whether anyone (say, Trump) had asked him to write the memo that the White House then cited as the justification for firing Comey. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) recalled that Rosenstein responded by citing the role of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who will run an independent investigation of this whole affair:

“He said, ‘That is Bob Mueller’s purview,’ and that was puzzling to a lot of us,” said Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

As Brian Beutler notes, it is critical that “the question of who was involved in laying the pretext for firing Comey is now a matter for the special counsel to examine.” This pretext-laying, of course, could be part and parcel of an effort to obstruct justice. The Times’s new report — that Rosenstein angrily rejected the apparent effort to enlist him in obfuscating what really drove the firing — would appear to lend more support to this possibility.

Also recall that the Times reported last week that Trump privately told Russian officials the day after he fired Comey that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” This account, Politico reports, is likely to add more fodder to charges that Trump’s firing of Comey might have constituted an effort to obstruct justice.

Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the Justice Department who has emerged as a skillful decoder of this whole mess, pointed out to me this morning that all this suggests it’s very plausible Rosenstein has come into full knowledge of the real reason Trump fired Comey.

“You can think of two plausible ways this happened,” Miller told me. “One, Trump himself complained about the Russia investigation in his meeting with Rosenstein and Sessions (given how indelicate he’s been with Russian officials). Two, that Rosenstein himself was briefed on Trump’s concerns by Comey.”

The Post has reported that top Justice Department officials were briefed on the memo written by Comey that indicated Trump may have urged him to quash the probe into Michael Flynn’s Russia ties. If one of these was Rosenstein, Miller notes, then he might have had a clear understanding of Trump’s motives for firing Comey when he (Rosenstein) wrote his own memo. Miller’s overall reading is supported by today’s new Times reporting.

Given that obstruction of justice requires demonstrating a corrupt intent to obstruct, it’s unclear whether it can be proved that Trump did this even if his full efforts to interfere with Comey’s probe are confirmed. But Rosenstein possesses plenty of knowledge that would shed light on this — knowledge he has yet to share.

* RUBIO: TRUMP ACTS MAY HAVE BEEN ‘PROBLEMATIC’: On CNN yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) noted that former FBI director James B. Comey will soon testify to Congress about his memo reportedly showing Trump urged him to squash the Michael Flynn probe:

“Did he keep these memos? What do those memos say? … Did he ever feel like he was being put in a position where he couldn’t do his job? There’s no doubt that that’s the questions that are going to get asked … If any president tries to impede an investigation … by interfering with the FBI, yes, that would be problematic … it would be … potential obstruction of justice that people have to make a decision on.”

Yes, indeed — Republicans may soon “have to make a decision” about Trump’s fate.

“The concern of people like us, is that this investigation will drag on and pop on us in October of 2018, and totally screw us,” said a Republican strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “I just don’t like the idea that this could be strung out, strung out, strung out, strung out. I think it becomes a really big distraction,” added Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., a key Trump ally on Capitol Hill.

And so, if Republicans are hoping to use the special counsel as an excuse to dial back their own oversight, perhaps they might want to rethink that.

* WHITE HOUSE TRIES TO BLOCK TRANSPARENCY: The New York Times reports that the White House is trying to block an effort by the Office of Government Ethics to seek the release by federal agencies of waivers granted to former lobbyists to work for them:

Dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous administration. Keeping the waivers confidential would make it impossible to know whether any such officials are violating federal ethics rules or have been given a pass to ignore them.

And the draining of the swamp continues apace.

For Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health care to low-income Americans, Trump’s budget plan would follow through on a bill passed by House Republicans to cut more than $800 billion over 10 years … The White House also will call for giving states more flexibility to impose work requirements for people in different kinds of anti-poverty programs, people familiar with the budget plan said, potentially leading to a flood of changes in states led by conservative governors.

Who could possibly have predicted that Trump would abandon his campaign promise not to cut Medicaid and instead throw in his lot with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s ideological zeal to shred the safety net?

* DEMOCRATS LEAD IN VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL RACE: A new Post-Schar School poll finds that both Democratic candidates (former representative Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam) lead likely GOP candidate Ed Gillespie by double digits:

Voters seem to be punishing Gillespie for Trump’s performance, which they don’t like. Trump’s job approval rating is at 36 percent … Among self-identified independents, more than 6 in 10 voters who disapprove of Trump support Northam and Perriello over Gillespie, with the Democrats receiving similarly wide support among independents who oppose the Republican health-care bill passed earlier this month by the House.

The outcome this fall may signal how damaging Trump may be to Republicans in the 2018 House and Senate midterms — and in three dozen gubernatorial races next year.

* LIBERALS SLAM TRUMP FOR SABOTAGING OBAMACARE: The advocacy group Save My Care is out with a new Web video that shows Trump claiming that letting the Affordable Care Act explode is a good political move, because it can then be blamed on Democrats. The video also notes that, by refusing to say whether the administration will continue “cost-sharing subsidies,” Trump is actually “trying to make that happen.”

The refusal to clarify the fate of the cost-sharing subsidies does seem designed to stoke uncertainty about the markets so that insurers pull out and cause them to collapse, leaving millions uninsured.

The Trump administration is effectively sabotaging individual insurance markets, so that in many cases Americans who lose employer coverage will have no place to turn — which will in turn tie those who do have such coverage to their current employers.

It is not often discussed, but the ACA has given many the freedom to move jobs without fearing the loss of coverage — another gain that Trump is now threatening to demolish.

* AND TRUMP NEEDS A PAPAL INTERVENTION: Trump is set to meet with Pope Francis, and E.J. Dionne Jr. suggests that it’s time for an intervention:

Moving an incorrigible narcissist toward self-criticism is as likely as changing the course of a river or the trajectory of the Earth’s rotation around the sun. But some people believe in miracles … the pope … believes in our capacity to transform ourselves and in an Almighty willing to forgive our sins. So he might well take on one of the toughest counseling jobs of his life by urging Trump to consider the value of thinking beyond the self.

Remember the backstory here: During the campaign, Pope Francis hinted that Trump’s immigration policies were “not Christian,” prompting Trump to lash out angrily in response. So there’s no way Trump will ever take any spiritual advice from him.