WASHINGTON - Memos written by Andrew McCabe when he was the acting FBI director say Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested he secretly record his talks with President Donald Trump, and that Rosenstein discussed possibly trying to remove Trump from office, according to people familiar with the matter.
The account, first reported by the New York Times, paints Rosenstein as so concerned in May 2017 in the wake of Trump's firing of then-FBI Director James Comey that he contemplated secretly recording conversations with the president. He also initiated discussions about invoking the 25th Amendment, which details how the Cabinet can decide whether a president is no longer able to discharge the duties of the office, one of the McCabe memos said.
The revelations immediately prompted speculation that Trump might seize on the new information to fire Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general oversees special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether any Trump associates conspired in those efforts.
Speaking at a rally in Springfield, Missouri, on Friday evening, Trump said, "Look at what's being exposed at the Department of Justice and the FBI. We have great people in the Department of Justice . . . but we have some real bad ones. You see what's happening at the FBI, they're all gone, they're all gone. But there's a lingering stench and we're going to get rid of that, too."
The saga features two of the president's biggest targets for public criticism, McCabe and Rosenstein, both of whom he blames for an investigation he calls a "witch hunt." In this instance, McCabe's memos offer an extraordinary account of Rosenstein's thinking at a difficult time in the Justice Department and could could give Trump fresh ammunition to move to oust Rosenstein.
McCabe was fired this year, and a grand jury is weighing possible charges against him for allegedly misleading investigators in a leak probe.
McCabe's lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement that his client "drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions. When he was interviewed by the special counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos - classified and unclassified - to the special counsel's office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos."
Rosenstein denied the account.
"The New York Times' story is inaccurate and factually incorrect," Rosenstein said. "I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment."
In a second statement hours later, Rosenstein said: "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."That statement came after White House officials pressured the Justice Department to issue a more forceful denial, according to an adviser who spoke to the president. The president asked advisers Friday if he should fire Rosenstein, and some of those around Trump sought to sway him not to make any decision Friday night. During those discussions, the president said he did not trust Rosenstein or McCabe, the adviser said.
People familiar with the 2017 discussions - and the memos written about the discussions - offered wildly divergent accounts of what was said and what was meant.
Most of the key discussions took place on May 16 - at a time of high stress and concern within the upper echelons of the Justice Department and the FBI. Comey had just been fired, and his deputy, McCabe, like many in the FBI, was deeply upset about that action by Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.
Comey's firing also alarmed Justice Department officials, but they had an additional concern. Rosenstein had written a memo criticizing Comey's handling of the earlier FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for government business. That memo was used by the White House as a central justification for Comey's firing, but many law enforcement officials suspected that that was a pretext and that Rosenstein had been manipulated into providing cover for possible obstruction of justice.
Rosenstein was under tremendous pressure from Congress to show that both he and the entire Justice Department had not caved to political pressure from the White House.
In that setting, senior Justice Department and FBI officials gathered to discuss how to proceed with the investigation into Russian election interference.
McCabe's notes from May 16 assert that both the recording and 25th Amendment remarks occurred during discussions on that day. McCabe's senior counsel, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, also took notes of the discussions that largely track McCabe's in sequence and import but are more detailed, according to people familiar with the discussions and the subsequent documents.
It is not clear why McCabe decided to memorialize meetings with his boss. Page took notes as McCabe's in-house counsel.
Both McCabe's and Page's written accounts of the May 16 talks indicate that Rosenstein suggested candidates interviewing for the FBI job should wear a recording device to memorialize their discussions with the president, according to one person familiar with the documents. McCabe's written account from that day also says Rosenstein raised the possibility of an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment, while Page's accounts of the same discussion do not mention that, the person said. One person familiar with McCabe's account said Rosenstein brought up the idea of recording Trump on two separate occasions that day.
According to other attendees at the meeting, the mention of secretly recording Trump occurred in a different context from the one McCabe and Page described. According to these people, McCabe was pushing for the Justice Department to open an investigation into the president.
During a conversation about how one would attempt to record any outlandish statements made by the president in private, Rosenstein responded with what one person described as a sarcastic comment along the lines of, "What do you want to do, Andy, wire the president?"
That person insisted the statement was not meant seriously. At one point in the May 16 discussions, another senior Justice Department official remarked that it was crazy that they were engaged in such conversations at all.
A third person familiar with the discussions said McCabe had privately told people months ago that Rosenstein suggested invoking the 25th Amendment and the idea of a senior law enforcement official wearing a wire while talking to Trump.
But a key discrepancy between the contradictory accounts revolves around the assertion by some that there were two key meetings that day attended by slightly different groups of officials - which could explain why McCabe's account differs at times not just from that of Justice Department officials but also from Page's.
A spokeswoman for Page declined to comment.
A Justice Department official who met frequently with both McCabe and Rosenstein said that in the months that followed, Rosenstein never broached either subject - the 25th Amendment or a possible wiretap involving the president.
The details of McCabe's memos come at a time when a grand jury has been hearing evidence in a case of possible criminal false statements by McCabe.
McCabe was questioned by internal FBI investigators in 2017 about whether he had authorized anyone in October 2016 to talk to one of the reporters in this story. McCabe repeatedly denied doing so, but an inspector general report found evidence to the contrary. If prosecutors were to seek to charge McCabe, it is likely that they would have to get approval first from Rosenstein.
A key issue now is how the White House will respond to the revelations and disputes, as some high-profile conservatives argued the new information justifies firing Rosenstein.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted that Rosenstein "needs to go. Today."
The president's son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: "No one is shocked that these guys would do anything in their power to undermine" the president.
Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host who is in contact with the president, said that "if the allegation is true, absolutely fire Rosenstein. No one could find fault in that decision now."
Bolling said a senior administration official reassured him Friday that White House officials "are going to expend quite a few resources to get to the bottom of the story." Another Republican close to the White House said in an interview that the communications director, Bill Shine, wanted to gather more information before taking an aggressive stance on Rosenstein.
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The Washington Post's Sarah Ellison contributed to this report.
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Video: President Trump and Republicans have launched an onslaught of criticism against Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and the FBI.(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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SEVEN SPRINGS, N.C. - When Hurricane Florence crashed into North Carolina's coastline last week, just a tree or two fell in this tiny town along the Neuse River, 70 miles inland. Soon, the power went out. As high winds and storm surge battered eastern cities such as Wilmington and New Bern, the residents here - those who hadn't already moved away - left for higher ground to wait out what appeared to be a weakening tempest.
The storm then spun out over the state and broke up, unleashing massive rains before it moved on. When President Trump flew into North Carolina under sunlit skies five days later, evacuation orders were lifting, and people were beginning to go back home.
But here, in Seven Springs, the menace was mounting steadily. It seeped up Main Street, past the shop by the boat landing that sells fishing tackle, through the fire station, into Mae's Restaurant.
When the Neuse finally peaked at three feet above major flood levels on Thursday, the mayor, who had not left his house since Monday, sat stranded on his front porch where Main and Easy streets meet. He eyed a ripped plastic bag of kitchen trash bobbing in the murky torrents whooshing by, a two-feet-deep brew of urban waste and everything else the Neuse picks up as it wends past hog farms and chicken houses on its 275-mile journey through North Carolina.
After Seven Springs, the swollen river flows by Kinston, where it is expected to crest early Saturday, and then New Bern and James City and on into the Pamlico Sound at the foot of the Outer Banks.
"They will get what we had in a couple of days," Mayor Stephen Potter said. "The storm itself is not our biggest problem. Our problem is what comes next."
This, Potter said, is the real disaster, just like before, with Matthew in 2016, Floyd in 1999, and Fran in 1996. It comes on a time-delay, long after the winds and the rains have dissipated and attention has been diverted. The original assault over, the river completes a stealth attack, rising relentlessly out of its banks, lapping over curbs, inching its way onto porches and through doorways, and creeping up the riser onto the fourth of the new front steps that Potter had built two years ago.
Some roads around Seven Springs became impassible Thursday evening. Residents in parts of Bladen County to the south faced new mandatory evacuations as the Cape Fear River also continued to rise, with a crest expected during the weekend. Floodwaters breached a dam near a Duke Energy power plant on Friday, the company said, sending material from a toxic coal ash basin flowing into the Cape Fear River.
The river rises were predicted given the amount of rain Florence and its remnants dropped across the region - more than 30 inches in some places - and state officials have long been saying that the water, not the storm whence it came, was the real threat.
Potter and others whose families have lived here for generations learned to accommodate the Neuse, a river that is famed for being fickle - raging like a torrent in heavy rains and shrinking to a trickle during times of drought. But the floods these days do not behave the way the old floods did. The topography of the state has altered, with malls, sprawling parking lots and residential development upstream, creating rapid man-made runoff that the Neuse collects and carries toward the coast.
Small towns such as Seven Springs are paying the price; it has become more difficult to anticipate when the Neuse will crest, let alone how high.
"The flow of water changes every year," said Mac Daughety, a county commissioner from neighboring Lenoir County who stood beside rescue vehicles on a short, dry stretch of Main Street, where a single brick marked the highest point the water has reached this time around.
During the flooding two years ago, Carolyn Griffin, 85, reluctantly agreed to let the National Guard carry her out of her stately Victorian house on Main Street. Her grandparents owned it once, and it had never taken in a drop of floodwater until the end of the century, when Floyd sent the river into its foundation.
Then Matthew slipped straight in through the front door. Hurricane Florence is further confirmation of what Griffin already knew: She won't be moving back. Even the handsome family furniture she rescued is bleached and cracking from the soaking it took.
"I think it's a little bit too late for an ark," Griffin said.
Potter, from his elevated perch across the street, tells a similar story. He purchased the old family home in 1992.
"In 100 years it had never had water in it until Floyd," he said. He gave the old frame away to one of Griffin's daughters and had a new house built in 2000, elevated four feet above ground. That took in a foot of water in Matthew, and he has since rebuilt, this time another four feet higher.
Water wasn't always such a foe here. The town was named after seven springs that were believed to have medicinal properties. Doctors would prescribe a visit to the hotel (now closed) so patients could ingest a concoction from the dipping wells: one scoop of water from Spring 1, mixed with two scoops from Spring 3 and half a scoop from Spring 5.
"If we are going to survive, we need the river to be our friend again," said Potter, who has a vision for combined residential and recreational redevelopment.
That could be a challenge in a town that has been in a long retreat. Seven Springs, which hit its peak population of 207 in the 1960 Census and had 163 residents in 1990, saw nearly 50 percent of its population flee by 2000, the year after Floyd. More have left since, Potter said.
The fire station is flooded, and its new building on higher ground is not yet completed. Volunteer firefighters line up behind the brick high-water marker on Main Street, ready to attempt a rescue or occasionally ferry food supplies or guests to Potter and his mother, their dog, three cats and a feral feline who took refuge with them.
The rescue center - also being rebuilt on higher ground - is acting as a temporary shelter, providing evening meals for anybody who shows up hungry,
Jackie Rouse - who laments that there are now two feet of water in her restaurant, Mae's - donated ham biscuits, potato salad and chicken. She has reached out to her landlord to ask about reopening. So far, she said, he is waiting to see what it looks like when the water recedes.
The Post Office, which operated out of a mobile unit after Matthew, is temporarily closed. The bank has gone. And it looks as if more residents could move away, too.
Carolyn Griffin walked back into her family house Thursday, water knocking on her front door. She was wary of the fire ants that invaded "by the billions" two years ago. This time, she was marveling at how the mold "keeps right on and on, going up."
The skeleton of century-old studs and joists is on display now that the plaster has been ripped out, but the shapes of the rooms bring back old memories of sitting by the wood stove and pushing back her grandmother's dining room table to create a dance floor.
Two out of a couple hundred sandbags that she and her daughters filled to keep Matthew out lay the patio, which was once ablaze with bright azaleas.
"We used to know our floods," Griffin said, repeating what she has often told neighbors. But she sounds a little weary when she tries to explain the repeated recent inundations now. "I'm gonna have to keep me a log."
The fate of the family house - and several other buildings that surround it - remains uncertain: "The way we were raised is you don't sell family land," said her daughter, Karla Griffin, noting that the home has been in the family for four generations. But neither Karla nor her two sisters have children - "We have no heirs," she said.
It is not clear that anybody would want to buy it. They have looked into grants for having the property restored, and they have resisted letting it be torn down.
The same uncertainty comes up about the town. Nobody seems quite certain even how many people still live here.
Potter, who has invested heavily in elevating his house so it can survive a storm like Florence, puts the number at 60. Others say it's closer to 25 or 30.
Karla's sister, Allie Price, begins counting out on the fingers of two hands the families who still live in central Seven Springs, pointing out their houses as she goes.
Karla, a town commissioner, interrupts with one number she is sure of: "Fourteen registered voters," she said. "And that includes me and mom."