Advisers to President Trump are counseling him against firing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein over memos written by the former acting director of the FBI that say Rosenstein proposed secretly recording the president and pushed for his removal from office.
The details of the memos written by former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe were revealed Friday, prompting immediate speculation that the information would give Trump the justification to do what he has long desired: dismiss Rosenstein, the Justice Department official overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But those close to Trump and some of his allies on Capitol Hill believe that a politically charged firing in advance of the midterm elections will feed a Democratic narrative of chaos in the administration, and that the president should wait until November to make any changes at the Justice Department.
Rosenstein issued a public statement disputing the accuracy of the New York Times story that described the memos written by McCabe and his then-in-house counsel, FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
On Friday evening, Rosenstein was summoned to the White House, where Chief of Staff John F. Kelly demanded to know whether the accounts were accurate and, if not, urged Rosenstein to issue a more forceful denial.
After the Kelly meeting, Rosenstein issued a second statement, saying he had never sought to secretly record Trump and never advocated removal of the president. Mention of the constitutional option to remove the president also echoed a recent op-ed in the New York Times by an anonymous senior official in the administration who wrote that “there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment.”
Trump spent much of Friday evening on Air Force One, where he polled advisers about whether he should fire Rosenstein, according to a White House official. In those discussions, the president said the story confirmed what he knew all along — that Justice Department officials were out to get him, according to the adviser.
The president continued to discuss the issue with aides and associates Saturday and said he was more suspicious than furious about the reports, peppering his inner circle with a round of questions about whether he was being “baited” into taking action that could imperil his presidency because McCabe — a person he detests — took some notes about private conversations, as one ally close to him put it. White House aides who spoke to Trump said he was less angry than they expected.
“McCabe complicates it,” the ally said. “He doesn’t trust McCabe and thinks McCabe is maybe playing a game with memos — maybe because of his book deal, maybe trying to take down [Trump]. So, he’s staying cool, for now.”
St. Martin’s Press announced Tuesday that it will publish a book by McCabe, “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump,” in December.
Inside the top ranks of the Republican Party, there are also discussions about what a Rosenstein firing could mean for this year’s midterm elections, which are just weeks away.
Several veteran Republicans communicated to friends at the White House on Saturday that any major upheaval at the Justice Department could trigger a political hurricane for the GOP to weather in an already difficult year. The White House, through various back channels, made clear that no such shake-up was coming, according to two Republicans in touch with Trump administration officials.
Trump has paid close attention to the conservative media’s reaction to the story but has not been persuaded by the outraged calls by his sometime confidants, such as Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, to fire Rosenstein — and he has nodded along agreeably as another Fox News anchor, Sean Hannity, waved him off the idea, according to three advisers to the president who were not authorized to speak publicly. White House aides encouraged conservative allies in the media to not provoke the president.
“We are experiencing tonight a massive constitutional crisis. And frankly, this is designed to set up the president,” Hannity said on air. “I have a message for the president tonight. Under zero circumstances should the president fire anybody.”
“If it was up to many of the Fox News hosts, the president would have already fired Mueller, but he hasn’t. He takes it in and takes the best course available, under the circumstances,” former Trump political aide Sam Nunberg said. “He knows it’s very easy to say something on cable, and the reality of being under investigation and the threat of being removed from office.”
Trump has kept a closer eye on the reaction of his congressional boosters and staunch Rosenstein critics, such as Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has pushed for the deputy attorney general’s impeachment, the adviser said — and he has noted that Meadows has so far resisted calling for Rosenstein to be fired.
“I think Rod needs to come before Congress this week and explain under oath what exactly he said and what exactly he didn’t say. I think it’s time,” Meadows said Saturday at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
In a flurry of phone calls and text messages, other Trump allies seized on the reports as an opening for Rosenstein to be pressured to acquiesce to the demands of the congressional GOP, which has been locked for months in tense talks with the Justice Department over documents related to the Russia probe.
“The president should order Rosenstein to release all documents requested under subpoena by every committee on the Hill within 72 hours. And he should fire him immediately after if he does not comply in full,” former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon said in an interview.
Trump’s cautious approach to Rosenstein’s future has been informed by his complicated but somewhat repaired relationship with the deputy attorney general.
Even as Trump publicly rails against the Justice Department as a den of corruption with a “lingering stench,” as the president told his supporters at a rally in Missouri on Friday, he has come to privately appreciate Rosenstein as a competent official who, in his view, is far sharper than embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the advisers said.
Those advisers also told Trump that it could benefit him that the people he sees as his enemies are portrayed as conspirators. Trump also agreed with the notion that the controversy supports his criticisms of the Justice Department and could help secure confirmation of a new attorney general after the midterm elections, the advisers said.
According to aides, Trump is likely to fire Sessions after the election anyway and removing Rosenstein now would only serve to hurt Republicans facing voters in a few weeks. As a result of the discussions, advisers to the president said he is unlikely to fire Rosenstein in the near term but still would like to eventually remove him.
Trump’s advisers have argued that leaving Rosenstein in place preserves more options for the president as the Mueller investigation unfolds.
For now, according to one Republican in close contact with the White House, the president can accept Rosenstein’s version of events — that the deputy attorney general never contemplated invoking the 25th Amendment and that any reference he made to recording the president was made only in jest.
But Trump could always revive these episodes later should it prove to be advantageous, for instance, if the Mueller investigation produces conclusions unfavorable to him.
“If it goes the wrong way, you’ve got an arrow in your quiver,” according to one person familiar with the White House’s attitude. “You can say this guy was biased from the beginning.”
Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.