Everyone’s out to get the president. That’s the outcry from Donald Trump’s supporters after the New York Times reported Friday that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein once talked about wearing a wire and/or invoking the 25th Amendment to stop Trump. In a tweet about the Times story, Donald Trump Jr. scoffed: “No one is shocked that these guys would do anything in their power to undermine @realdonaldtrump.”
The Times story has provoked follow-ups from other publications suggesting that Rosenstein was joking about the wire. But Trump’s loyalists are right about one thing: The people around Trump are trying to thwart him. That’s why we’ve seen so many leaks about senior officials calling Trump a moron, an idiot, and a child. It’s why nobody can pin down which senior official wrote the anonymous Times op-ed about a resistance inside the administration: There are too many suspects to eliminate. The Rosenstein story adds to the pattern. But the pattern isn’t that all these people are disloyal. The pattern is that they’ve all come to recognize how awful Trump is.
Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, details the extent of the contempt for Trump among his aides. Chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, economic adviser Gary Cohn, and lawyer John Dowd are quoted calling Trump “unhinged,” a “sixth-grader,” and an “idiot.” (Dowd and Cohn left Trump world in March and April, respectively.) The book describes maneuvers by numerous officials to evade or thwart Trump’s orders. Woodward calls it “an administrative coup d’etat.”
The Times story, which relies heavily on memos written by former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, paints a similar picture of Rosenstein. When Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey in 2017, he portrayed Rosenstein as a seasoned ally with sound arguments for the dismissal. But the Times story says Rosenstein wasn’t on board. He “was caught off guard when Mr. Trump cited the memo in the firing, and he began telling people that he feared he had been used,” says the Times.
Trump portrayed Comey as a loner, liar, and traitor. But the Times story presents evidence that Rosenstein trusted Comey, not Trump. In one meeting, Rosenstein “said that he wished Mr. Comey were still at the FBI,” according to the article. Rosenstein also wanted to ask Comey for advice on appointing a special counsel to take up the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, Rosenstein “wondered whether Mr. Trump had motives beyond Mr. Comey’s treatment of [Hillary] Clinton for ousting him.”
Rosenstein didn’t keep these thoughts to himself. He shared them “in meetings and conversations with other Justice Department and FBI officials,” says the Times. In a meeting with at least five other officials, he groused about Trump’s unseriousness and the administration’s disarray. The article also says Rosenstein talked with other officials about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, apparently based on mental unfitness. There’s dispute about whether Rosenstein was serious or joking when he talked about wearing a wire to record the president. But the Times says he talked about it in at least two meetings.
In the Times story, some officials who spoke to the paper—it’s not clear whether these officials were present or merely saw McCabe’s memos—reportedly describe Rosenstein’s musings as “erratic.” But if the colleagues with whom Rosenstein spoke about these things at the time had shared that view, they would have leaked his comments. They didn’t. And that, in turn, suggests that Rosenstein may have felt free to talk this way because the officials around him largely agreed.
Nor was this distrust of the president confined to the Justice Department. According to the Times, while Rosenstein was writing his memo about Comey, White House aides were trying to stop Trump from firing the FBI director. The article also reports that Rosenstein told colleagues “he might be able to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions and [Kelly] to mount an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment.” That effort never materialized, says the Times. But what could have given Rosenstein the idea that Kelly and Sessions might go along? Recall the words of the anonymous op-ed: “early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment.” Rosenstein wasn’t in the Cabinet. Somebody else was doing the whispering.
Parts of the Times story remain to be adjudicated. There’s a pitched battle, in particular, over the context and seriousness of the comment about wearing a wire. But other anecdotes in the story haven’t been disputed, and together, they point to the same bottom line: Rosenstein didn’t trust Trump. Nor do other people in the administration. It isn’t because these people don’t appreciate who Trump really is. It’s because they do. So if you want to restore loyalty to the president, you won’t achieve that by getting rid of Rosenstein. You’ll have to get rid of Trump.