On Friday, the New York Times reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein discussed invoking the 25th Amendment process for removing an incapacitated president in the chaotic aftermath of FBI Director James Comey’s May 2017 firing. The paper also says that Rosenstein, who supervises Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation of Trump-Russia connections, also discussed on multiple occasions the idea of “secretly recording” Trump.
Rosenstein told the Times its story was “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and that he does not believe there are 25th Amendment grounds to remove the president; one or more Rosenstein-friendly sources have already told a number of outlets that the deputy AG’s comments about wearing a wire were made in jest. Trump supporters in the hard-right media have nonetheless called for Rosenstein to be fired:
With Trump having admitted just this week that he sometimes does things just because someone on Fox News asked him to, the possibility that the Times report will trigger Rosenstein’s firing is a serious one—and one that the Times’ anonymous sources for the story must have anticipated. So who might have been motivated just right now to leak a story that makes a Rosenstein firing more likely? Let’s look at the suspects:
• Andrew McCabe. Friday’s Times report says its account of Rosenstein’s behavior was derived in part from sources who had been “briefed” on “memos written by F.B.I. officials, including Andrew G. McCabe.” McCabe is the former high-level FBI official who was fired in March over allegations that he circumvented former FBI Director James Comey to leak information to the press and then lied about doing so to internal investigators. The process that led to McCabe’s firing was supervised by current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom have generally appeared to be allies of Rosenstein’s. Might McCabe have fed the contents of the memos—which he wrote after meetings that involved Rosenstein—to the Times to get revenge on the Sessions-Rosenstein-Wray DOJ? It seems unlikely; for one, McCabe’s attorney told the Times that McCabe “turned over” his memos to the special counsel’s office and left copies of them at the FBI but has no knowledge of how they came to be shared with the press. For another, whoever might replace Rosenstein at DOJ would presumably be a Trump patsy who’d shut down or undermine the Trump-Russia investigation—which McCabe by all accounts supported aggressively—and who would possibly seek to prosecute McCabe over the incident that led to his firing.
• Trump’s attorneys. Here’s a line in the Times piece that sticks out:
In the end, the idea [of recording Trump] went nowhere, the officials said. But they called Mr. Rosenstein’s comments an example of how erratically he was behaving while he was taking part in the interviews for a replacement F.B.I. director, considering the appointment of a special counsel and otherwise running the day-to-day operations of the more than 100,000 people at the Justice Department.
The idea that the Mueller investigation is intrinsically illegitimate because it was launched by biased individuals is one that’s been hammered in recent months by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. The idea of Rosenstein’s Mueller appointment being the result of erratic paranoia would support this “fruit of the poisoned tree” theory. The Times team that broke Friday’s story has also done previous reporting that suggests a working relationship with Trump’s legal team. But it’s not clear how Trump’s lawyers would have gotten “briefed” on McCabe’s memos—and even if they had, one imagines they’d want to sit on any information gleaned therefrom until it became legally relevant rather than using it to goad Trump into firing Rosenstein, a move that would potentially constitute obstruction of justice. Trump’s advisers, legal and otherwise, have generally sought to keep him from firing Rosenstein and/or Sessions for fear that it would create legal liability and/or trigger a backlash among midterm voters who’d perceive such a move as an act of corruption.
• Hard-liners in Congress. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes and “Freedom Caucus” Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, and others have been attacking Mueller’s investigation for more than a year now out of what appears to be little more than pure, base-stoking tribal spite; some Freedom Caucus members even tried to impeach Rosenstein in a move that was blocked by “moderate” GOP leaders. As national security writer Marcy Wheeler notes here, Jordan has been particularly involved with House Judiciary Committee efforts to force the DOJ to disclose internal documents about Trump and Russia that would be used to argue that Mueller and the FBI are irredeemably biased against Trump. The Judiciary Committee is in regular contact with DOJ officials about the documents they’re seeking to have disclosed; the existence of McCabe’s memos, meanwhile, has been public knowledge since March.
Here’s what Jordan wrote after the Times story broke Friday:
It appears that the House hard-liners, then, had both the means and the motive to leak potentially damaging information about Rosenstein from the McCabe memos; they also don’t seem to care much about how a potential firing would affect Trump politically, generally behaving as if the imperative to #MAGA overrides any other considerations. The Times won’t ever reveal the identities of its anonymous sources, of course, so there’s no way to confirm it, but for now at least signs point to Trump’s right-wing army in the House being behind Friday’s act of headline-worthy tattletalemanship.