In the days after FBI Director James Comey’s May 2017 firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein discussed wearing a “wire” to record conversations with President Donald Trump and recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, according to sources familiar with memos authored by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe documenting the discussions.
The extraordinary allegations, depicting a panic-stricken No. 2 official at the Justice Department who has been a target of the President in the past, immediately raised questions about Rosenstein’s future and how Trump would react. The revelations prompted Rosenstein to take the remarkable step of denying the report in two separate statements.
The story was first reported by The New York Times.
CNN has not reviewed the McCabe memos, but they have been turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller, according to sources familiar with the matter. Rosenstein oversees Mueller’s investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and recently secured the cooperation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Rosenstein issued two rare statements himself forcefully denying the Times’ report – the broad strokes of which were eventually widely reported by other outlets.
“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,” Rosenstein said in a statement. “But let me be clear about this: based on my personal dealings with the President, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
While none of Rosenstein’s proposals came to fruition, according to the Times report, the remarkable details of the memos – whether a wholly accurate reflection of all that transpired or not – could further imperil Rosenstein’s delicate standing in Trump’s eyes.
Two sources familiar with the matter say Rosenstein was at the White House Friday evening for about a half hour, where he consulted with top aides and told to issue a firmer denial. The sources would not specify who the aides were.
Later he issued a second statement: “I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false.”
The President sought advice on whether he should fire Rosenstein, and some of those in his orbit tried to sway him not to make any decision Friday night, The Washington Post reported. During those discussions, the President relayed that he did not trust Rosenstein or McCabe, according to the Post.
’Lingering stench’ at Justice Department, Trump says
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the top official at the department, was “upset” and “concerned” upon reading the Times story, according to a source close to him. After the story broke, former Justice Department officials went into damage control mode trying to dismiss McCabe’s recollection of his interactions with Rosenstein.
McCabe’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement to CNN that his client “drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions.”
“When he was interviewed by the special counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos – classified and unclassified – to the special counsel’s office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos,” Bromwich added.
Amid rampant speculation over the source of the Times story, a representative for McCabe said no one associated with him shared info on his memos with media. Melissa Schwartz tweeted, “Let me be 100% clear: no one associated with Andrew McCabe or his team shared, read, described, whispered or blinked in Morse Code any part of his memos with any reporter.”
As of late Friday evening, the White House had still not commented on the story, but Trump told a rally in Missouri, “there’s a lingering stench” at the FBI and Justice Department and promised ominously, “we’re going to get rid of that, too.”
The President’s son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the Times story and said: “No one is shocked that these guys would do anything in their power to undermine @realDonaldTrump.”
Congressional fight begins
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned the White House not to use the story to try to fire Rosenstein.
“This story must not be used as a pretext for the corrupt purpose of firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in order install an official who will allow the president to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation,” Schumer said in a statement. “Generals Kelly, Mattis and numerous other White House and cabinet officials have been reported to say critical things of the president without being fired.”
Rosenstein has been a frequent target of the President, who has called the special counsel’s investigation a witch hunt and a hoax, and House Republicans have threatened to hold the deputy attorney general in contempt or to even impeach him.
Two of Rosenstein’s most vocal critics in the House, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, called for McCabe’s memos to be released via Twitter.
Jordan, who along with Meadows has introduced articles of impeachment against Rosenstein, declined to weigh in on whether Rosenstein’s discussions about a wearing a wire and the 25th Amendment were grounds for Trump to fire him, saying that was a decision for the President.
But Jordan told CNN in an interview Friday that it underscored the fact that Congress should be given a copy of the McCabe memos, which he says Republicans were denied when they sought them in July. “Mr. Rosenstein says he didn’t say what The New York Times is writing about. Let us see all the information and we can all judge for ourselves,” Jordan said.
In April, CNN reported Trump considered firing Rosenstein in the aftermath of the FBI’s raid on the President’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Trump also suggested he might remove Rosenstein in February after Rosenstein was named in the House Republican memo alleging abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. When asked by reporters in the Oval Office if he was considering firing Rosenstein, Trump said: “You figure that one out.”
Yet Trump has also repeatedly painted McCabe as a serial liar. In April, after the Justice Department inspector general released a report damaging to McCabe, Trump promoted the report on Twitter and said it was a “total disaster” for McCabe. Trump added, “He LIED! LIED! LIED!”
Sessions fired McCabe in March over accusations that he had approved other FBI officials speaking with the media about an ongoing investigation into the Clinton Foundation and had misled investigators about his actions.
McCabe has fiercely disputed the findings of the Justice Department’s inspector general, but he is still under criminal investigation by the US Attorney’s Office in DC.
CNN’s Ariane de Vogue, Kevin Liptak and Marshall Cohen contributed to this report.