New York: Rod Rosenstein, the seniormost official in the US Justice Department currently overseeing the Robert Mueller probe into Russia's alleged meddling in the US 2016 elections is said to have verbally offered his resignation to Donald Trump's chief of staff John Kelly Monday. If Rosenstein goes or is asked to go when he meets Donald Trump this week, who will oversee the Mueller probe and what does that imply in midterm election season?
Seventy two hours ago, a A New York Times report said Rosenstein discussed the possibility of secretly recording the president and invoking the Constitution to have the Cabinet remove him from office. This dates back to barely two weeks after former FBI chief James Comey was fired by Trump. Rosenstein denied the report swiftly but his future is hanging in balance from the moment that story broke - the Trump White House does not take kindly to naysayers and Rosenstein has been a target of Trump's attacks for more than a year now.
If Rosenstein is indeed leaving the Justice Department - either by resigning or being fired, who takes over to ensure that the Robert Mueller probe goes on? After Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, recused himself from the Russia investigation, the responsibility fell to his deputy Rod Rosenstein. If Rosenstein exits, the job would typically fall on the next in line, a Number 3 in the department but the Number 3 slot of Associate Attorney General is not filled yet. So, enter Number 4 - the Solicitor General who at this time happens to be Noel Francisco. Legal experts are saying this person too may have to recuse himself because his former employer still represents the Donald Trump campaign. Francisco, reports CNN, "has a history of defending the authority of the executive branch, including when it comes to the ability to remove certain appointees, which is sure to be scrutinized if he were to take over the closely watched probe that has already brought down allies of the President." Francisco is the highest-ranking Senate confirmed official below Rosenstein in the Justice Department.
Where does all this leave Robert Mueller and the Russia probe which Donald Trump has been railing against?
"The President is in charge of the executive branch, and Mueller, as the special counsel, is a subordinate in that branch of the government. If Trump is determined to fire Mueller, or to constrict his investigation in untoward ways, he and his advisers will figure out a way to do it", says Jeffrey Toobin, writing in The New Yorker.
"Mueller's toast" - that's clearly the dominant sentiment on this story so far.
"Mueller was taking too long. Rosenstein's departure augurs terribly for Mueller", writes Peter Daou, former Clinton and Kerry advisor.
The reports about Rosenstein's wanting to tape Trump add to the turmoil roiling the administration, just six weeks before midterm elections with control of Congress at stake. In addition to dealing with the Mueller investigation, the White House is also struggling to win confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.
On a radio talk show over the weekend, Trump signaled his unhappiness over the Rosenstein story: "I think it's a very sad story," Trump said. "We're looking into it. It's a very sad state of affairs when something like that can happen. I don't want to comment on it until I've got all the facts. Certainly its being looked at in terms of what took place, if anything took place."
For now, the White House delayed until at least Thursday a decision on the fate of Rosenstein but talk has already begun about his replacement. Trump is in a better place after a potential Rosenstein exit than before it happens. No matter who takes over the probe immediately after a shake-up, Trump could insert a person who could eventually be in charge of directing Mueller.
As Trump mulled Rosenstein's fate and consulted on how to respond, Rosenstein was summoned to the West Wing on Friday evening by White House chief of staff John Kelly. Despite his "You're Fired!" tagline from his "The Apprentice" reality show days, the president has shown himself reluctant to directly fire aides himself.
While his White House has been marked with unprecedented staff turnover, Trump has often left the task to deputies, including Kelly. To that extent, Kelly summoning Rosenstein is ominous.
Associated Press is reporting that Trump is angry and asking confidants, both inside and outside the White House, how to respond. "He received mixed messages. Some urged him to fire Rosenstein. Others suggested restraint while seeing if the report was incorrect or if it was planted by some adversary."
Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May of last year after Sessions, who ordinarily would have overseen the investigation, recused himself because of his close involvement in the Trump campaign.
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Updated Date: Sep 25, 2018 02:56:45 IST