Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in 2017 talked about using a wire to record President Trump, according to memos written by then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe and FBI lawyer Lisa Page. According to McCabe’s memo, he also broached the 25th Amendment, a method of removing the president by members of his Cabinet. Rosenstein has issued two denials.
That much we know.
What we don’t know about the story that was first reported by the New York Times on Friday, though, is much more voluminous — including just how serious was Rosenstein. And perhaps most importantly, we don’t know what it could portend for a president who has seemed anxious to get rid of the people in charge of the Russia investigation, including Rosenstein, who oversees special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.
Below are four big questions that should be answered in the days, weeks and months ahead.
1) Was Rosenstein being sarcastic?
This seems to be the explanation of choice.
Even in his denials, Rosenstein didn’t explicitly say he never talked about wearing a wire or the 25th Amendment. (He instead said he never “pursued” it.) It’s also conspicuous that the Justice Department furnished to the Times an anonymous source who said Rosenstein was being sarcastic. That would appear to be a tacit admission that Rosenstein said these things.
The Washington Post also has sources who say the remark was sarcastic, but the Times’s account is dubious about that argument. The Times reported that Rosenstein assured others he was being serious and even talked about getting Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly (now White House chief of staff) on board with the 25th Amendment gambit. One source told The Post that Rosenstein mentioned recording Trump twice in one day, which would suggest it wasn’t just a passing joke.
There are a couple of mitigating factors. One is that this story appears to trace back to McCabe’s contemporaneous memos. McCabe was rather unceremoniously fired from the FBI this year and faces possible criminal charges. At the same time, his attorney says he “has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained these memos.”
The second is that it’s simply difficult to see Rosenstein being serious about this. He’s got a reputation as a very by-the-book law enforcement official. Indeed, any law enforcement official talking about this would be highly unorthodox.
All of that said, this was at a time when Rosenstein reportedly felt Trump used him and his memo as a false pretext for firing then-FBI Director James B. Comey. Emotions run high, and perhaps that’s what happened with Rosenstein.
Or maybe he was just being sarcastic.
2) Who is the source? And what is their agenda?
Almost instantly, talk turned to whether Trump would fire Rosenstein, which seems like something that’s been on his to-do list for a very long time. Some even accused the Times of serving as stooges for the White House to build a pretext for that, much as Trump allegedly used Rosenstein to fire Comey.
That’s all speculation — based on little besides suspicion and partisanship. But what’s clear is that if the White House is behind this somehow, its agenda is pretty evident, and that’s to fire Rosenstein and/or send a message.
If anybody else put this out there — or (gasp!) it came about simply via good, ambitious reporting — the end result might be the same, but it won’t be so certain. If this emanated from McCabe or someone who wanted to build on the 25th Amendment narrative (more on that later), that would also make sense.
3) Does Trump fire Rosenstein?
That certainly just became more possible, and The Post has reported Trump asked advisers Friday whether he should do it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will happen or that it’s a wise decision.
Firing Rosenstein has long been a political minefield, and that remains the case. Getting a replacement who might be friendlier is hardly a sure bet, and the move could still carry political blowback from Republicans worried about Trump blowing up the Russia investigation.
That said, some House Republicans have moved to impeach Rosenstein, and it could be tougher for other Republicans to dismiss the idea that Rosenstein is an uncompromised overseer of the Russia probe. White House aides are reportedly advising Trump to wait, rather than saying he necessarily shouldn’t fire Rosenstein.
There’s also an argument to be made, though, that this could create a false sense of security for Trump to fire Rosenstein and that he could be tempted to do it in a way that he perhaps shouldn’t. Those around Trump have prevailed upon him not to do so; their job just got more difficult (assuming some still try to stop him).
4) How widespread is the 25th Amendment talk, really?
While this all would otherwise seem to be a good thing for Trump, that doesn’t change one troubling fact: This story is about more people fretting about his unfitness to be president — and going so far as to talk about doing something extraordinary about it.
This is the second time in two weeks we’ve heard about senior Trump administration officials broaching the 25th Amendment, which is used to remove a president deemed unfit for office; the first time was in that anonymous New York Times op-ed. Increasingly, it seems that those around Trump are so alarmed by his conduct that they are willing to entertain drastic options.
That sure makes Bob Woodward’s book ring true.