September 22, 2018 03:26 AM
WASHINGTON (AP) - The fate of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who discussed secretly recording President Donald Trump and possibly suggested removing him from office, could turn on whether Trump believes the account of an ex-FBI official who he once tweeted had "LIED! LIED! LIED!"
The revelation that the No. 2 Justice Department official had even broached those ideas, sarcastically or not, creates greater uncertainty for Rosenstein's job status at a time when Trump has railed against law enforcement leadership as biased against him. The president on Friday night said there was a "lingering stench" at the Justice Department that "we're going to get rid of," though he didn't name names.
A key witness in the episode is Andrew McCabe, the FBI official who was temporarily elevated to director after James Comey's firing and who documented conversations with senior officials, including Rosenstein, in memos that have been provided to the special counsel as part of the Trump-Russia investigation.
The discussion about possibly recording Trump occurred during a meeting with McCabe in May 2017 following Comey's firing, a decision that infuriated many rank-and-file agents and that the White House has said was done on the Justice Department's recommendation. A memo from McCabe also describes Rosenstein as having discussed the potential removal of the president under the Constitution.
Yet even though Trump has publicly scorned Rosenstein, he's been every bit as harsh toward McCabe â€” who was fired in March amid a watchdog investigation that concluded that he had repeatedly lied about his involvement in a news media disclosure. Trump had called McCabe's firing a "great day for democracy" and asserted without elaboration that McCabe knew all "about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI." The inspector general's findings have been referred to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.
Friday's news reports raised the prospect that Trump could fire Rosenstein, an action some conservative commentators called for him to take immediately. Any dismissal could affect special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe given that Rosenstein appointed Mueller and oversees his work.
Trump told a campaign rally in Missouri that the department has some "great people" but also "some real bad ones." He said the bad ones were gone, "but there's a lingering stench and we're going to get rid of that, too." It was unclear to whom he was referring, and the White House did not respond to questions about Rosenstein's remarks.
Rosenstein's comments were first reported by The New York Times, which also said that he raised the idea of using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump as unfit for office. Rosenstein issued a swift denial, saying "I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false."
It's also the latest revelation that could affect Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible coordination between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign in 2016. Sessions recused from that issue soon after he took office, to Trump's dismay, and Rosenstein later appointed Mueller. Trump has resisted calls from conservative commentators to fire both Sessions and Rosenstein and appoint someone who would ride herd more closely on Mueller or dismiss him.
The differing accounts of the conversation underscore the conflicts that roiled the FBI and Justice Department early in the Trump administration after Rosenstein, just weeks into his job, wrote a memo critical of Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email server investigation that the White House used as justification for firing the FBI director.
Rosenstein distanced himself from the White House after Comey's firing by saying he didn't intend for his memo to be used as the basis for Comey's termination. Comey, meanwhile, has criticized Rosenstein's role in the firing but has said he since acted honorably. And Comey and McCabe, once close associates, have provided wildly divergent accounts about who knew what when regarding a 2016 Wall Street Journal story on an FBI investigation into the Clinton Foundation.
McCabe says he told Comey that he had authorized FBI officials to share information with the reporter in order to push back against a story he felt was going to be unfair to the bureau and inaccurate. Comey, however, has said McCabe did not acknowledge having done so and left the impression that he didn't know who had shared the information with the journalist.
The Justice Department, in moving to defend Rosenstein, sought to exploit those differences by distributing a list of instances in which the inspector general said McCabe had made false statements in the past. The department also released an email from one attendee who said Rosenstein's "statement was sarcastic and was never discussed with any intention of recording a conversation with the president."
Rosenstein called the Times story "inaccurate and factually incorrect."
One of the people briefed on the conversation in question, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the interaction, said it occurred during a moment of frustration between McCabe and Rosenstein.
Rosenstein was rankled by the revelation that Comey had kept memos about his interactions with the president; McCabe wanted a more aggressive approach toward the White House, the person said.
At that point, Rosenstein said to McCabe something to the effect of, "What do you want, you want me to wear a wire?" according to the person. Rosenstein was asked in the meeting if he was serious, and he said yes, but he did not mean for the wire comment to be taken seriously as a tactic to investigate Trump, the person said.
The person also said that a memo from McCabe describes Rosenstein as referencing the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which says that a president can be declared "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" upon a majority vote of the vice president and the Cabinet.
But the person said notes and recollections from other attendees at the meeting, including former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, do not include the 25th Amendment reference.
McCabe's lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement that McCabe had drafted memos to "memorialize significant discussions he had with high-level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions." He did not address the content of the memos.
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in Springfield, Missouri, contributed to this report.
Created: September 22, 2018 03:26 AM
(Copyright 2018 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)