Rod J. Rosenstein’s departure seemed so certain this week that his boss’s chief of staff told colleagues that he had been tapped by the White House to take over as second-in-command of the Justice Department, while another official would supervise the special counsel probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, people familiar with the matter said.
But by Monday afternoon, the succession plan had been scrapped. Rosenstein, who told the White House he was willing to quit if President Trump wouldn’t disparage him, would remain the deputy attorney general in advance of a high-stakes meeting on Thursday to discuss the future of his employment. The other officials, too, would go back to work, facing the prospect that in just days they could be leading the department through a historic crisis.
Inside the Justice Department on Tuesday, officials still struggled to understand the events that nearly produced a seismic upheaval in their leadership ranks — until it didn’t — and they braced for a potential repeat of that chaos later in the week.
Some officials said that Matt Whitaker, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff, had told people he would be taking over for Rosenstein — an indication that the deputy attorney general’s departure was all but certain — and were surprised when it was announced that Rosenstein would remain in his job. Sessions began telling people on Sunday that Rosenstein might be in trouble, according to people familiar with the matter. Others said they learned all the developments from news reports that evolved throughout the day.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
While it remained possible that Rosenstein could still resign or be fired imminently, people inside and outside the department said it seemed increasingly more likely that Rosenstein would stay in the job until after November’s elections and then depart, probably along with the attorney general. Two White House officials said Tuesday that Trump is unlikely to fire Rosenstein until after the midterms.
Forcing out the deputy attorney general in the next month could motivate Trump’s detractors to turn out for elections in which dozens of congressional seats are in play and Republicans are fearful they are at risk of losing control of the House. And those who have observed Trump and Rosenstein together or have been told of their interactions said the president seemed to hold Rosenstein in somewhat higher regard than he did Sessions.
“For all of the president’s bluster, I’m not sure he doesn’t have at least some grudging respect for Rod,” said James M. Trusty, a friend of Rosenstein and former Justice Department official who works in private practice at Ifrah Law.
Trump — fueled in large measure by his anger over the Russia probe — has long mused about firing Sessions and Rosenstein. He has said publicly he would have picked a different attorney general had he known Sessions would recuse himself from the investigation, led by Robert S. Mueller III, and he has privately derided the country’s top law enforcement official as “Mr. Magoo.”
For the bespectacled Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller to lead the Russia probe, Trump chose the nickname “Mr. Peepers,” a character from a 1950s sitcom.
In public, the two law enforcement officials have scarcely fought back against the president’s attacks. Both have praised him by name in speeches. One Justice Department official said Trump and Rosenstein have a “strong working relationship,” despite Trump’s public and private attacks on him and the department.
That relationship, though, seems to be at a crossroads, after news reports emerged last week that former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe alleged in memos that Rosenstein had a year ago suggested using a constitutional amendment to remove the president from office or using a wiretap to record his conversations.
Rosenstein has generally disputed that reporting, and he told White House officials that he felt McCabe’s recollections were exaggerated. A person familiar with at least one of the exchanges at issue said that Rosenstein was not serious when he broached the idea of a wiretap. But if McCabe’s description is accurate, that could give Trump good reason to oust the deputy attorney general.
During conversations with White House officials over the weekend, Rosenstein suggested he was willing to resign, and that his stepping down might be necessary to end the brewing controversy. His conversations were somewhat stifled by other news: Rosenstein tried to talk to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, for example, but McGahn was dismissive and indicated that he was overwhelmed with the controversy surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.
By Monday, when the news outlet Axios reported that Rosenstein had “verbally resigned,” the planning was advanced, and people familiar with the matter said Rosenstein believed he would be fired. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who was tapped to be Sessions’s chief of staff in October, told people in the Justice Department he would be taking over as the deputy attorney general. Solicitor General Noel Francisco was slated to take over supervision of the Mueller probe.
The Justice Department had prepared a statement announcing Rosenstein’s departure. But after a highly anticipated visit to the White House, where Rosenstein spoke with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, there was no resignation and officials soon announced the meeting with Trump on Thursday.
Trusty, who declined to detail his own conversations with Rosenstein, said it is possible Rosenstein sees last week’s news stories as having done irreparable harm to his relationship with Trump.
“I could see a situation where if he thought the relationship was utterly broken between he and his supervisory chain, which goes all the way to the president, then he could say, ‘Okay, this is not an effective model,’ ” he said.
But he said he doubts Trump would fire Rosenstein — mindful of the political damage it might do — and if Rosenstein does leave, he might not do so immediately. That is particularly significant, because some fear that whoever succeeds Rosenstein might stifle the Russia probe in ways Rosenstein hasn’t.
“If he stays to the end of the year, that might mean he’s going to shepherd the Mueller probe to the finish line,” Trusty said.