In the aftermath of James Comey’s firing as FBI director in May 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had a heated confrontation about who should recuse themselves from the Russia investigation in front of special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a source briefed on the matter.
Both men were convinced that the other was damaged by the events that had transpired and should step aside from the Russia investigation, according to multiple sources.
In the meeting with Mueller shortly after he was appointed special counsel to lead the Russia probe, Rosenstein pointed to the fact that years before, McCabe wore a campaign T-shirt in a family picture supporting his wife’s bid for state senate, the source said. On the presidential campaign trail, President Donald Trump had repeatedly pointed to Democratic super PAC political donations to Jill McCabe’s campaign as evidence of McCabe’s political bias, and Rosenstein used the T-shirt photo as grounds for why a recusal may be necessary.
In turn, McCabe, who became the acting FBI director after Comey was ousted, was particularly disturbed by the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing and Rosenstein’s role in the episode, aggressively pushing him to recuse in the days that followed, as CNN has reported.
Overall, there was significant mistrust on both sides while tensions were high in May 2017, and sources suggested to CNN this suspicion colored the conversations that are now documented in contemporaneous notes McCabe handed over to Mueller.
The Justice Department’s Inspector General concluded that McCabe was not obligated to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation into how Hillary Clinton handled classified information, but has not addressed whether McCabe should have recused himself from Russia-related matters.
CNN has previously reported that Rosenstein has continued to oversee Mueller’s investigation after consulting with a career ethics adviser at the Justice Department about his ability to oversee the Russia probe.
The Rosenstein-McCabe row in front of Mueller, which was first reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday, has come into full view this week as the President has signaled Rosenstein’s job is safe for now. His future at the Justice Department had appeared shaky over the last several weeks amid reports that he discussed with McCabe secretly wearing a wire to record Trump last year – an idea Rosenstein adamantly denies ever pursuing.
Meanwhile, another former top FBI lawyer, James Baker, added support to the claim McCabe took Rosenstein seriously, recounting to House investigators that McCabe told him that Rosenstein had raised the idea of wearing a wire. The idea, however, was swiftly dismissed as implausible, according to a source familiar with Baker’s interview, and he was not present when any wiretapping remarks were raised.
Baker is expected to come before the House Judiciary Committee for a second round of questioning next Thursday, according to another source familiar with the interview plans.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.