And now, back to your regularly scheduled constitutional crisis.
Last week’s biggest Beltway news (outside of the ongoing Brett Kavanaugh debacle of course), came courtesy of a bombshell article in the New York Times, whose Adam Goldman and Michael Schmidt reported that last year, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested he and others should wear wires in an effort to capture, on tape, the turmoil inside the White House.
Additionally, the sources for the article suggested that according to “several people” who were “briefed either on the events themselves or on memos written by F.B.I. officials”, Rosenstein also attempted to marshal support among Trump’s cabinet for invoking the 25th amendment.
Rosenstein vigorously denied the rumors and pretty much as soon as the article was published, other reporters and political pundits suggested that the Trump administration might have planted the story as a pretext for getting rid of Rosenstein.
The President is no fan of “Mr. Peepers”and rumors that the Deputy AG’s clock is ticking have swirled for months. Rosenstein of course oversees the Mueller probe and personally signed off on the FBI raid of Michael Cohen’s offices, home, and hotel room earlier this year.
For a full account of Trump’s long-standing efforts to rid himself of Rosenstein, you can read our take on the above-mentioned New York Times piece in “Rod Rosenstein Definitely Didn’t Secretly Record Trump And Plot To Oust Him With The 25th Amendment, Ok?!“, but suffice to say the latest revelations, true or not, are ammo for a President who is eager to commandeer the special counsel probe before the walls close in even further on the Oval Office.
Well, sure enough, Axios is out reporting that Rod Rosenstein has “verbally resigned” to John Kelly. To wit:
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has verbally resigned to Chief of Staff John Kelly in anticipation of being fired by President Trump, according to a source with direct knowledge. Per a second source with direct knowledge: “He’s expecting to be fired,” so he plans to step down.
Bloomberg seemingly confirmed the story with at least one person familiar with the situation, although Reuters subsequently suggested Rod isn’t officially out yet.
According to ABC’s Chief White House correspondent, things didn’t play out as expected. “This may be the strangest day yet at the Trump White House”, Jonathan Karl tweeted, adding the following:
Rosenstein was summoned to the WH to meet with John Kelly this morning to be fired. He wasn’t. And now Rosenstein is attending a previously scheduled cabinet-level meeting (filling in for Sessions)
In case this needed to be a little more confusing, here, according to CNN, is how this unfolded:
On Friday, Rod Rosenstein and John Kelly met at the White House in the hours after the story broke and Kelly relayed to the deputy attorney general that the denial he issued earlier in the day was not sufficient. Kelly relayed a command to issue a firmer denial, which is how Friday’s second statement came about.
Over the course of the last several days Rod Rosenstein spoke to John Kelly and said that he would resign. A second source says Rosenstein said he was “thinking” of resigning.
The two decided to work it out on Monday, according to the sources. One source said that the White House held off because they were dealing with the Kavanaugh situation this weekend.
There were some matters in dispute including the White House refusing Rosenstein’s conditions regarding the timing of when he would leave on his own terms.
The White House says John Kelly was surprised when Rosenstein called Monday morning to say he is resigning, according to one of the sources.
Here is the “official” word on what comes next:
Statement on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: pic.twitter.com/yBgAydv9oR
— Kayleigh McEnany (@PressSec) September 24, 2018
Whatever the case, this is going to create a veritable firestorm on the Hill. Democrats will likely demand an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the activities described in the New York Times piece and you can expect allegations of sabotage to be leveled against the White House. Last week, Chuck Schumer said the following:
This story must not be used as a pretext for the corrupt purpose of firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in order install an official who will allow the president to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation.
In the event Rosenstein does resign or is fired, the Mueller probe will be passed down the line, with Sessions still recused, and it is entirely likely that the special counsel would view that as further evidence of obstruction.
The President apparently has the authority to name a temporary replacement but as Bloomberg notes, “the Justice Department has a line of succession that could let Solicitor General Noel Francisco assume control of the investigation.”
Here’s a bit more on Noel from VOX:
If Rosenstein were fired, or if he quit, the spotlight would turn toSolicitor General Noel Francisco. Francisco is the next Senate-confirmed Justice Department official in line, which means the Mueller investigation would drop to him. (The No. 3 person in the department, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, resigned in February; the Trump administration hasn’t picked a replacement.)
Francisco would have two options as Mueller’s new boss: He could keep the status quo and allow Mueller to continue the investigation, or he could choose to curtail Mueller’s mandate or even shut down the investigation.
Francisco, a prominent Republican lawyer, has some impressive conservative credentials. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and worked in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration.
He’s also defended a broad interpretation of executive power – he even tried to argue a casebefore the Supreme Court that defended the president’s expansive power to fire executive branch officials. That case is unrelated to the Mueller probe, but Francisco’s argument, and his legal interpretations, offers some insight into the man who might soon take over Rosenstein’s job.
Francisco was a partner at a law firm that has a long-standing relationship with Trump.
A full .pdf of Francisco’s responses to questions during his confirmation hearing (which came just a day after Comey was ousted) can be found below.
Francisco Responses to QFRs