WASHINGTON — When Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, headed to the White House on Monday morning, he was ready to resign and convinced — wrongly, it turned out — that President Trump was about to fire him. Top Justice Department aides scrambled to draft a statement about who would succeed him.
By the afternoon, Rosenstein was back at his Pennsylvania Avenue office seven blocks away, still employed as the second-in-command at the Justice Department and, for the time being at least, still in charge of the Russia investigation.
What happened in between was a confusing drama in which buzzy news reports of Rosenstein’s imminent departure set in motion a dash to the White House, an offer to resign, Capitol Hill speculation about Rosenstein’s successor and, finally, a reprieve from an out-of-town president.
“We’ll be determining what’s going on,” Trump said Monday afternoon from New York, where he was meeting with foreign leaders at the UN General Assembly. Asked about Rosenstein, Trump said, “We’re going to have a meeting on Thursday when I get back.”
Even for an administration famous for chaos and rival factions, Monday’s events offered a remarkable display of the anxiety gripping the Trump administration after a New York Times report Friday said that Rosenstein had considered secretly taping the president and had discussed using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
Rosenstein called the account “inaccurate.” But it raised more questions about the fate of the deputy attorney general, who has repeatedly clashed with Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill over the Russia inquiry. Critics called for him to be fired. Allies demanded he stay.
This account of the events of the past several days is based on interviews with people close to Rosenstein, White House advisers, Justice Department officials, lawmakers from both parties, and others familiar with the rapidly evolving situation.
By Friday evening, concerned about testifying to Congress over the revelations that he discussed wearing a wire to the Oval Office and invoking the constitutional trigger to remove Trump from office, Rosenstein had become convinced that he should resign, according to people close to him. He offered during a late-day visit to the White House to quit, according to one person familiar with the encounter, but John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, demurred.
Aides began planning over the weekend for his departure, going in to the Justice Department to determine how to recalibrate in the aftermath of it.
Also over the weekend, Rosenstein again told Kelly that he was considering resigning. On Sunday, Rosenstein repeated the assertion in a call with Don McGahn, the White House counsel. McGahn — who was dealing with the emergence of another accusation of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court nominee — asked Rosenstein to postpone their discussion until Monday.
Some White House officials also believed that only the president could legally accept Rosenstein’s resignation, not Kelly, according to two people familiar with internal discussions.
By about 9 a.m. Monday, Rosenstein was in his office on the fourth floor of the Justice Department when reporters started calling. Was it true that Rosenstein was planning to resign, they asked. Officials at the Justice Department took the inquiries as evidence that the White House wanted to speed along that outcome.
Rosenstein and Ed O’Callaghan, his top deputy, raced out of the building and headed to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., for what they expected to be the final word. Justice Department officials told reporters that Rosenstein expected to be fired upon arriving there.
A spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, began drafting a news release that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was on his way back from a weekend in Alabama, would distribute if Rosenstein were fired.
At the White House, the deputy attorney general slipped into a side entrance to the West Wing and headed to the White House counsel’s office to meet with McGahn.
Rosenstein was emotional; he wanted to leave on amicable terms, not in a manner that would trigger an angry Twitter tirade from Trump.
But McGahn, who is set to leave the White House as soon as the Kavanaugh nomination is concluded, reminded Rosenstein of his own short-term status and directed him to talk to Kelly.
Two people familiar with the discussions described Kelly as “conflicted” about Rosenstein’s fate, believing that a departure before the midterm elections in November would be bad for the president. At some point, Rosenstein and Trump had what the president’s spokeswoman called “an extended conversation” about the Times article.
The president had already planned to clean house at the Justice Department — but not until after the elections, according to one person who had discussed Rosenstein with Trump before last week’s Times article. Monday’s drama about an imminent resignation created an unwanted headache, the person said.
But as Rosenstein and Kelly remained behind closed doors, the possibility of Rosenstein’s departure had sparked blaring headlines about the implications for the Russia inquiry and the management of the Justice Department.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were caught off guard. Some legislators from both parties, already wrangling over the Kavanaugh nomination and girding for November’s elections, seemed to wish the matter would simply disappear.
“I hope they can work it out,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s number two Republican. He told reporters that Rosenstein had done “a good job in a tough position” and, echoing a line senators have repeatedly employed to try to dissuade Trump from shaking up senior law enforcement, warned that confirming a replacement for Rosenstein at this point would be “problematic.”
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said on Twitter that she was “concerned” by reports of Rosenstein’s fate and that he “plays a critical role” overseeing the Russia inquiry.
I’m very concerned by reports that Deputy AG Rosenstein will either be fired or forced to resign.— Sen. Susan Collins (@SenatorCollins) September 24, 2018
Soon word began leaking out of the White House that Rosenstein had joined a previously scheduled meeting of top administration officials in the West Wing — evidence that he had not resigned or been fired. At the Justice Department, Sessions returned around the time it became clear that Rosenstein was not being fired.
Speculation continued until 12:48 p.m., when Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeted a statement that said that Rosenstein had requested a conversation with the president.
“Because the president is at the United Nations General Assembly and has a full schedule with leaders from around the world, they will meet on Thursday when the president returns to Washington,” Sanders said.
But the fact that Rosenstein may be on the job for at least another 72 hours is unlikely to be the end of the story. A departure by Rosenstein this week would thrust the administration into further turmoil only weeks before the midterms.
If Rosenstein leaves, Noel Francisco, the solicitor general, would assume oversight of the Russia investigation, according to a Justice Department official. Matthew G. Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff, would become acting deputy attorney general, an unusual move; typically, a top aide to the deputy attorney general would take over the post.
Critics have said that Francisco cannot oversee the Russia investigation without a waiver from the White House because his former law firm, Jones Day, is representing the Trump campaign in the inquiry, creating a conflict of interest. Justice Department officials have not addressed whether a waiver would be needed if Rosenstein departs.