The odds that President Trump forces out Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have increased, I think, because Trump may now have the grounds to fire Rosenstein for insubordination and disloyalty. The New York Times reported last week that Rosenstein suggested in private meetings with Department of Justice colleagues that Trump’s Cabinet should invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. He also said he would wear a wire while meeting with Trump (although Rosenstein’s allies suggested that was a joke). Rosenstein said the stories were generally inaccurate, but he did not specifically deny that he referred to wearing a wire or invoking the 25th Amendment. Rosenstein was not fired and has not resigned, as several outlets said would happen on Monday.1 He is now meeting with President Trump on Thursday.
Whether Trump moves to dismiss Rosenstein on Thursday or a later day, I think a dismissal is more likely to happen now than before the Times story broke — and especially now that the water has been muddied by the resignation stories. Trump can fire Rosenstein and more credibly argue that the firing is not directly tied to Rosenstein’s handling of the investigation into the Trump 2016 campaign’s ties with Russia, even if that’s really why Trump wants to get rid of Rosenstein.
The Times article makes Rosenstein not just the guy overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which we know Trump hates, but a person who is publicly identified with suggesting that Trump’s Cabinet should seek to replace him. An appointee of a president suggesting that a president be replaced by his Cabinet is highly, highly unusual. If it emerged publicly that Housing Secretary Ben Carson or Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had discussed the 25th Amendment, I think there would be rumors Trump was considering sacking them, too. What’s more, I’m not sure Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama would have tolerated such speculation either. In 2010, when General Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was quoted in Rolling Stone magazine attacking the Obama administration’s war strategy, Obama fired McChrystal.
Before the New York Times story, Trump firing Rosenstein posed a huge political problem. In effect, Rosenstein is overseeing an investigation of Trump. And Trump firing someone who is investigating him has the potential to cause a constitutional crisis — or least a crisis around the rule of law, much as the president’s actions around fired FBI Director James Comey did.
Removing Rosenstein still has political perils for Trump. The president has not done what Richard Nixon did in 1973 and removed top DOJ officials overseeing an investigation of him in one single night. But if Rosenstein is forced out, Trump would move another step closer to what MSNBC chief legal correspondent Ari Melber argues amounts to his own “slow-burning Saturday Night Massacre.” Already in Trump’s two years in office, the FBI director, the deputy director of the FBI and the FBI’s general counsel, all of whom had roles in the investigations surrounding Trump, have been fired or reassigned, as has an FBI agent who was helping to lead the Russia investigation. I expect Democrats and perhaps even some anti-Trump Republicans to criticize the president if he removes Rosenstein, and I think the move would draw negative media coverage and be opposed by the public.
But if Trump fires Rosenstein because of the Times story’s revelations (or at least says that’s why he did), it’s not an obvious political disaster for Trump because we’re not really sure how it affects what everyone really cares about: the Russia investigation. We don’t know exactly how involved Rosenstein is day-to-day in that investigation. He appointed Mueller and now oversees him. But we don’t fully know if the deputy attorney general is, say, signing off on every subpoena or mapping out the strategy with Mueller. A new person overseeing that investigation could try to fire Mueller or limit the probe in other ways. But there is no guarantee that will happen.
My bottom line: Don’t assume Trump will fire Rosenstein or that he won’t. The president is unpredictable, and he may want to avoid the controversy such a firing will start. And don’t assume that there will be a big backlash if Rosenstein is gone, either. And, while we’re at it, refrain from one more assumption: Don’t assume that Rosenstein being gone means the end of Mueller’s tenure as special counsel or the Russia investigation. Trump’s Washington has a way of defying expectations.