The New York Times has published a story that cites anonymous sources who claim that in the chaos after President Trump fired James Comey last May, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein discussed secretly taping the president and possibly invoking the 25th Amendment. Rosenstein denied the accusations in a statement:
The New York Times’s story is inaccurate and factually incorrect. I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.
The upshot of the article: The sources, all of which are all second-hand, are furthering the nonsensical but insidious narrative of a “deep state” coup of Trump. The article presents this insanity almost blithely, and lacks critical context.
If the Times truly wanted their readers to fully understand this story, then the writer, Mike Schmidt, would have cited a source for every claim, but he doesn’t. We have no way of knowing whether the facts here are accurate — they might well be — but I do know the article, presumably approved at multiple editorial layers, was irresponsibly shaped and deprived of important context. And considering the above takeaway — that the man who chose Robert Mueller is complicit in a conspiracy to overthrow the President — that level of neglect is dangerous.
But a follow-up anonymously sourced article from the Washington Post complicates this narrative, and puts Rosenstein in a more favorable light, implying his comments about wearing a wire were clearly sarcastic and in response to FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s suggestion to launch an investigation into the President. Both, without context, leave Rosenstein alone on the 25th Amendment issue, and both also imply a deep state conspiracy.
But in order to fully analyze what we’ve read, we need to dig out what these pieces don’t give us. So ask two questions:
1. Who benefits from these stories?
2. Why did they leak now?
I mean, the answer is clearly Trump. The NYT article paints Rosenstein as a rogue agent deep in the DOJ who wants to sabotage the President. This bolsters the Trump team’s (including propagandists at Fox News) insane “deep state” conspiracy narrative. In terms of divining attribution, it’s also worth noting Trump just said in an interview that he should have fired Comey much earlier, including, idiotically, “after the primaries.” The leak could have been planned for a while.
As for the meat of the NYT piece, Schmidt quotes sources (all second-hand) saying that in the days after Comey’s firing Rosenstein was behaving “erratically.” Schmidt doesn’t question or complicate this assertion, and he also fails to mention that in the days following Comey’s firing all of Washington was behaving erratically. And though he reports (in non-sourced statements, as if of fact) that Rosenstein suggested taping the President, he fails to mention that in these same weeks Trump himself suggested he had secretly taped Comey.
Schmidt’s second-hand sources also say Rosenstein suggested to DOJ officials he could convince Jeff Sessions and John Kelly to build a movement to invoke the 25th amendment, a recondite constitutional mechanism for removing a President deemed unfit for office. The sources don’t suggest anyone else was floating this idea, and the article neglects to allude in some way to the many, many accounts from many, many government officials (books from Woodward, Omarosa, and Wolff; the anonymous NYT op-ed; Rex Tillerson calling Trump a f*cking moron; dozens and dozens of articles quoting officials as questioning Trump’s mental health, basic compassion, and intelligence; etc) so the article leaves Rosenstein out alone on this branch, reinforcing the image of a rogue agent.
The 25th amendment detail — and sole focus on Rosenstein — helps the White House in another way. The Trump administration has been desperate to find someone to take the fall for the recent anonymous NYT op-ed, and though no one in this article accuses Rosenstein of being the author, the connection is easy to make. But to be clear: There’s no indication Rosenstein wrote the op-ed. In fact, the idea he believed he could convince Sessions and Kelly suggest a broad circle of high-ranking suspects.
Finally, it seems undeniable that Rosenstein would be a witness in an obstruction of justice investigation. This is a much more palatable reason for Congressional representatives to call for, or support calls for, his recusal. Should Trump fire Rosentein, or Rosenstein recuse, he would be replaced by Solicitor General Noel Francisco — or perhaps by someone else of Trump’s choosing already confirmed by the Senate, though that process hasn’t been tested.
Finally, we have the only primary sources themselves: The memos from McCabe. The NYT doesn’t offer those memos and it’s unclear who in their news team might have seen them, if they saw them at all. Copies of memos, according to McCabe’s lawyer, went two places: To Mueller’s team, and to the FBI. McCabe doesn’t know how they got to the media, but a) Mueller doesn’t leak; b) it’s nonsensical for them to leak this; and c) members of the Trump team, such as Rudy Giuliani, have contacts within the FBI.
At any rate, it’s obvious that the Trump team is launching a new and forceful campaign to beef up the deep state conspiracy and subsequently discredit the Mueller investigation. However, if they’ve had this information on hand for over a year, why put it out there now?
On Thursday we learned that Michael Cohen has offered Robert Mueller help with every aspect of his investigation into Trump: financial dealings; hush money payments; the Trump Organization; the Trump Foundation; conspiracy with Russia; etc etc etc. We can also expect another round of indictments from Mueller to drop soon. It’s clear the noose is tightening on Trump and his inner circle. Trump faces, as he always has, an existential choice: Get indicted, or stop the investigation. Though it might seem extreme and politically stupid to fire Rosenstein, he needs to stop or slow the investigation somehow.
Of course we also have the mounting scandal about SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations against him of sexual assault. Trump would want those out of the headlines, but this seems much too broad to be simply a distraction.
We should also apply the “why now” question to the Washington Post’s follow-up, because that piece — which unlike the NYT cites first-hand sources — paints a competing picture. It reads like a rebuttal from DOJ — including possibly Rosenstein himself — and seems an attempt to clear the Deputy Attorney General of the allegations he wanted to record Trump. The sources for that article (who were in the meeting in question) say Rosenstein’s comment about wearing a wire was not only indisputably sarcastic, it was made in response to McCabe’s suggestion to investigate the President. (The headline, however, doesn’t include the complicating context.)
But like the NYT, the WaPo piece doesn’t contextualize the claim that Rosenstein wanted to invoke the 25th. It does, however, mention that contemporaneous memos didn’t include that detail. And again, remember the NYT piece didn’t cite first-hand sources there.
The big question is what happens next. None of the WaPo reporting throws water on what was almost certainly the Trump team’s intentions from the NYT leak, which is that there’s a silent deep-state coup against the President. We can in the coming hours expect Trump to rant about this. But will he take it further and fire Rosenstein?
It might hurt Republicans in the midterms, and if they lose the Senate it’s a certainty that Trump will be removed from office. But on the other hand, Rosenstein isn’t really a household name, and because he’s a layer removed from both of the big players in the DOJ’s investigation — Mueller and Sessions — the public might not react viscerally to an attempt to force him to recuse or to fire him outright. But even if Trump replaces Rosenstein, and even if he tries to shut down or restrict the Mueller investigation, it will probably do no good. Mueller has handed down dozens of indictments, and along with reams of evidence we’re still unaware of, he also has the cooperation of key players in the conspiracy, including Michael Cohen, Robert Gates, and Mike Flynn. (Flynn’s sentencing was once again delayed, indicating Mueller probably still wants his help — perhaps with corroborating Cohen’s claims.)
It’s not clear whether anything can save Trump now aside from a full-blown constitutional chaos and the threat of widespread political unrest and violence. That’s not out of the question, but whether Trump truly has the pathological degree of amoral, zero-sum selfishness — and more basically, whether the known coward has the courage — still isn’t a surety.
Still, should Mueller hand down more indictments — especially about obstruction of justice, to which Rosenstein is a witness — Rod Rosenstein will be the one to announce them on camera to the American people. Don’t be fooled: The coup is coming from the top.
Beyond that, though, the New York Times has a lot of explaining to do. Schmidt knows who this comes from and why they want him to run it. He knows what the agenda is here, and he has a professional duty to neutralize it. Bottom line: Trump’s team wanted Schmidt to isolate Rosenstein, and that’s exactly what he did.