For the last two years, millions of Americans have come to view Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as a kind of national insurance policy. This assessment is now in need of revision.
Rosenstein is the guy who appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate whether Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election a week after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. As the president rages on Twitter, Rosenstein is seen as the avatar of what one anonymous administration called the “steady state” — the resistance to Trump from within.
Now there is a fresh account of what Rosenstein did and said after Trump fired Comey. According to a new book from Comey’s former deputy, Andrew McCabe, Rosenstein offered to wear a wire to surreptitiously record Trump and discussed invoking the 25th Amendment, whereby a majority of the Cabinet and the vice president would deem the president unable to carry out his constitutional duties.
Much of this has been reported before. In an interview with “60 Minutes,” McCabe makes clear that these were just ideas discussed and discarded during seven perilous days in May — just after Trump bragged to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador about firing Comey and said that the pressure he faced from the Russia investigation had been “taken off.” McCabe now says that this boast, and Trump’s acknowledgment of his motivation for firing Comey in an interview with NBC News that same week, provided the legal basis to open an investigation into the president.
That’s debatable. But for the senior leadership of the FBI, at least, it’s understandable: They lost their leader in the middle of a probe into Russian interference in the election — and into the possibility that the president himself might be compromised. As McCabe tells Atlantic magazine in an interview this week, the Oval Office meeting with the Russians was only the latest in a string of “head-scratching, completely shocking events.” The case was building, and this was the last straw.
For Rosenstein, however, this rationale doesn’t quite work. After all, he abetted Trump’s decision to fire Comey, writing the May 2017 memo recommending that Comey be relieved of his duties for his mishandling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. He did this at Trump’s request. What’s more, McCabe said, Rosenstein was aware that Trump was motivated to fire Comey because of the Russia probe.
Rosenstein has denied elements of this account before. And the Justice Department, according to “60 Minutes,” issued “a carefully worded” denial of McCabe’s account of Rosenstein’s offer to wear a wire. And, of course, McCabe himself was fired last year for allegedly lying to federal investigators about a leak to the Wall Street Journal.
But even if the juiciest details of McCabe’s account cannot be verified, this case still raises important questions about the circumstances that led to the Mueller appointment. As McCabe tells it, Rosenstein effectively counseled Trump about how to fire Comey — and then took part in frantic meetings to discuss the crisis created by Comey’s firing.
McCabe acknowledges this conflict in his interview with the Atlantic. “What was important to me was to ensure that we got a special counsel appointed and we put the investigation on as solid ground as we could,” he said. Again, it’s easy to see why that would make sense for McCabe; it’s less clear why it would for Rosenstein. Could Trump have avoided the appointment of a special counsel altogether had he just stuck to the initial cover story?
Thankfully, Congress will be holding hearings on this matter. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said as much over the weekend. The committee should give Rosenstein an opportunity to explain himself.
Beyond that, it should also ask how the FBI came to see itself as the arbiter of what is in the national security interest of the U.S.
It’s just about impossible to justify Trump’s bragging to the Russians about firing the FBI director. Regardless, his actions primarily raise a political question — best settled by election or impeachment. No one elected Andrew McCabe, James Comey or anyone else at the FBI to lead the country. They work for the man who was elected in 2016. Even as they investigate the election, they need to remember that.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.