Expectations have diminished that a planned meeting Thursday between U.S. President Donald Trump and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein will result in the latter's resignation or immediate firing. But it's unclear how safe his job will be after the November midterm elections.
The White House sought this week to reassure senators that Trump doesn't plan to fire Rosenstein at the meeting, and doing so in person would be out of character for a president who has appeared reluctant to directly dismiss aides himself.
The president weighed in publicly Wednesday evening, when he said he may delay the meeting so that it doesn't conflict with the Senate judiciary committee meeting set for Thursday. Senators will hear from both Christine Blasey Ford, one of the women to accuse Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault — and from the judge himself.
When asked directly on Wednesday afternoon whether he planned to fire his deputy attorney general, Trump said he would "prefer" to keep him and let him. He said Rosenstein told him he didn't make the comments cited in a recent New York Times report.
"He said he never said it. He said he doesn't believe. He said he has a lot of respect for me. And he was very nice. And we'll see," Trump said.
Meanwhile, friends and former colleagues of Rosenstein say they don't expect him to step aside and give up oversight of the special counsel's Trump-Russia investigation and the enormous swath of Justice Department operations for which he is responsible.
Rosenstein, who has spent his entire career in government, "has tremendous loyalty to the department," said former Justice Department lawyer and longtime friend James Trusty.
"He's a very long-run, historical-minded guy in a lot of ways," Trusty said. "I think he may have some confidence that history will be kinder to him than politicians are."
The meeting follows a chaotic period that began Friday with news reports that Rosenstein had last year discussed possibly secretly recording the president and using the U.S. Constitution's 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. The Justice Department issued statements Friday aimed at denying the reporting, including one that said the wiretap remark was meant sarcastically.
Rosenstein's job status seemed especially precarious Monday when he arrived at the White House expecting to be fired. He had already told White House chief of staff John Kelly that he would offer to resign and told White House counsel Don McGahn that he was considering doing so, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Special counsel Robert Mueller's work is overseen by Rosenstein, because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The drama appeared to be defused, at least temporarily, after Rosenstein met again Monday with Kelly and spoke by phone with Trump in what the White House described as an "extended conversation."
Firing Rosenstein would immediately affect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017, oversees his work and has repeatedly defended the breadth and scope of the probe.
Trump has been critical of Rosenstein's oversight of the Russia probe, but the two have at times displayed a warm working relationship, and Rosenstein has been spared some of the more personal and antagonistic broadsides levelled against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Rosenstein joined the department in 1990, serving as a public corruption prosecutor, a Tax Division supervisor and a member of independent counsel Ken Starr's Whitewater team.
James Comey was fired as FBI director not long after Trump took office. (Ralph Alswang/ABC/Associated Press)
He was named U.S. Attorney in Maryland by George W. Bush and held the position throughout the Obama administration — remarkable longevity for a position that typically turns over with changes in political power.
"There's never been a cleaner guy in the Justice Department than this man," said Baltimore lawyer Steven Silverman, a Rosenstein friend. He said, "I don't think there's a chance in hell" that Rosenstein would resign.
Within weeks of being confirmed as deputy attorney general, he was engulfed in controversy by writing a memo critical of then-FBI director James Comey, which the White House cited as justification for Comey's firing. Rosenstein appointed Mueller a week later.
Though it all, he has displayed gallows humour about the tumultuous nature of the job, joking in speeches that he told one of his daughters when he took the job that his picture wouldn't be in newspapers because "deputy attorney general is a low-profile management job."
The president's attacks have been impossible for Rosenstein and his boss to ignore.
But, said Trusty, "he's thick-skinned enough to know these are the ways of Washington."
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