WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Monday he has no intention of firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, ending lingering uncertainty over the official’s tenure in the wake of reports he had suggested invoking the 25th Amendment last year to remove Trump.
Trump and Rosenstein were expected to talk aboard Air Force One while flying to Orlando for an event with police chiefs.
“I get along very well with him,” he told reporters as he departed the White House. Asked if he planned to fire Rosenstein, Trump replied, “No, I don’t.”
The prospect of Rosenstein’s departure raised deep concerns for the future of Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, which the president has repeatedly disparaged as a “witch-hunt.” Mueller was appointed by Rosenstein, who inherited oversight of the probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters last year.
Last month, Trump delayed a hastily scheduled meeting with Rosenstein when the two were set to discuss reports the deputy attorney general had also suggested at a meeting with top Justice and FBI officials last year that he wear a wire to record his encounters with the president in an alleged attempt to capture evidence of Trump’s instability.
The urgency for the earlier meeting appeared to abate last month after Trump signaled his support for Rosenstein, who has repeatedly denied the accounts first reported by The New York Times. At the time, Trump said he was delaying the discussion with Rosenstein to focus his attention on the then-embattled nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Kavanaugh, despite allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct, was narrowly confirmed by the Senate Saturday.
“My preference would be to keep (Rosenstein), and let him finish out,” Trump told reporters following last month’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, apparently referring to Rosenstein’s oversight of the ongoing Russia investigation.
“He said he did not say it; he said he does not believe that. Nobody in this room believes it,” Trump said.
Trump administration officials had warned the president that Rosenstein’s departure –either voluntary or by order – could inject more chaos into administration operations just weeks before the midterm elections where Republican leadership of the Congress is seriously threatened.
Only two weeks ago, Rosenstein’s hold on the No. 2 job at Justice appeared to be slipping away, when he was summoned to a meeting with chief of staff John Kelly at the White House. Rosenstein had expected to be dismissed, as questions continued to swirl about reported discussions of removing Trump after the president’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Rosenstein reportedly contemplated pursuing Trump’s removal in spring 2017, when the White House had been plunged into chaos after Comey’s dismissal.
The discussions, memorialized in notes authored by then-FBI Director Andrew McCabe, involved about a half-dozen other top Justice and FBI officials.
Another party to the meeting, who declined to be identified but whose account was provided to USA TODAY, remembered the reference to using a wire. But the person described Rosenstein’s comment as “sarcastic,” adding that there was no real intention to record the president.
While Rosenstein is set to remain on the job, it remained unclear for how long. Some Republican lawmakers, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump adviser, have suggested that changes at the top rungs of the Justice Department could come soon after the November midterm elections.
Even more at risk than Rosenstein is Sessions, who has drawn Trump’s continuing ire for his recusal decision last year.
In an interview with Hill.TV last month, Trump lamented: “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”
Trump has criticized Rosenstein, in large part for his decision to appoint Mueller whose inquiry includes whether the president sought to obstruct the investigation by firing Comey.
As part of his oversight role, Rosenstein has authority to dismiss Mueller. But he has consistently voiced strong support for his work.
“The special counsel is not an unguided missile,” Rosenstein said in a a March interview with USA TODAY. “I don’t believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel.”
For his part, Rosenstein has sought to dismiss the near-constant and pointed criticism from the White House, the House Freedom Caucus – whose members have raised the prospect of Rosenstein’s impeachment – and from an ultra-conservative Tea Party Patriots group.
The group once ran an ugly ad campaign, describing Rosenstein as “a weak careerist” and called for his resignation.
“I believe much of the criticism will fall by the wayside when people reflect on this era and the Department of Justice,” Rosenstein said in the March USA TODAY interview. “I’m very confident that when the history of this era is written, it will reflect that the department was operated with integrity.”