According to that New York Times article that blew up the internet Friday afternoon, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein secretly recorded President Donald Trump and discussed invoking the procedures in the 25th Amendment for replacing a president who cannot perform his duty.
Rosenstein strongly denies the report, and a Washington Post source suggests Rosenstein’s comments were meant as a sarcastic response (as in, “What do you want to do... wire the president?”). But the idea he might consider taking these steps didn’t come from nowhere. Post reporter Bob Woodward's book Fear describes a senior White House aide removing papers from Trump’s desk to keep him from immediately withdrawing from NAFTA. And a recent New York Times op-ed by an anonymous senior official revealed a covert effort to “thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
I should note that there is some speculation that the Times report is some sort of false-flag operation, a phony or manufactured pretext for firing Rosenstein, who’s called the story "inaccurate and factually incorrect.” Already, some pro-Trump voices such as Fox News host Laura Ingraham are using this as an opportunity to call for Rosenstein’s head.
Regardless, what the New York Times is reporting reflects a common theme: We have a broken political system where individual bureaucrats have decided that they have a duty to be the check and the balance.
The story here isn't Rosenstein’s reported insubordination, it’s about this presidency serving as a stress test for our republican form of government. It’s worth examining what has led us to this place.
First, I think we have to grapple with the question of whether a president—even one we disagree with—deserves his own team. Trump has made that complaint crassly, as when he cried earlier this week (before backtracking a bit the next day) that “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad” since Jeff Sessions recused himself from the special counsel probe thus led by Rosenstein.
The New York Times’ bombshell does not flesh out what event(s) caused Rosenstein to begin seriously questioning Trump’s fitness for the office, but does suggest that, days after ascending to the number two spot at Justice and writing a memo justifying Comey’s firing, for botching the Clinton investigation, he “was caught off guard when Mr. Trump cited the memo in the firing, and he began telling people that he feared he had been used.”
This is rather unusual, inasmuch as Rosenstein actually did write a memo strongly condemning Comey, only to grow “concerned that his reputation had suffered harm (as he) wondered whether Mr. Trump had motives beyond Mr. Comey’s treatment of Mrs. Clinton for ousting him,” according to the Times, citing people who spoke with Rosenstein at the time.
Setting all that aside, there’s a plausible argument tdat says a president can hire and fire the FBI director, the Attorney General, or the Deputy Attorney General for whatever reason he chooses. If one buys this argument (and not everyone does), even a president who fires the FBI Director with the intention of obstructing justice would still be acting within his constitutional prevue.
For Trump fans who believe there is a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine the president, it’s hard to come back and explain to them that this is a semantics issue—that it’s actually just the “steady state” working to contain an erratic president. Part of the reason that this gets messy is that nobody really wears the white hat. Rosenstein probably was used as a patsy to create a permission structure for firing Comey. And Comey did make some huge mistakes that opened the door for his being fired.
One man’s villain is another man’s hero, which is why it’s also important to look at this from Rosenstein’s point of view, too. Trump says crazy things all the time. He appears erratic and capricious. On one hand, he won the election. On the other hand, the fate of the world is in his hands. And—this is my strong hunch—people like Rosenstein wouldn’t feel tempted to explore such extreme measures if our other checks and balances were in place.
As I suggested above, the preident is endowed with a lot of discretionary power. He can (arguably) unilaterally hire and fire all sorts of people within the executive branch. He can issue pardons and launch military strikes—and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.
Part of the problem is that the Founders envisioned a system that would prohibit someone like Trump from ever making it to the presidency. Ironically, the very electoral college that made Trump president was designed as one such check—a way for local elites to override the will of the people and prevent a demagogue from taking the White House.
Almost immediately after the founding, political parties formed. For years, they served as gatekeepers. At first, bosses in smoke-filled back rooms would vet and weed out the miscreants. Then, conventions and caucuses helped ensure that a consensus candidate emerged. Sadly, the rise of binding primary elections—a modern invention meant to make the system more “democratic”—effectively neutered political parties.
There are other contributing factors. For generations now, Congress has abdicated authority and responsibility as a coequal branch of government (we can rightly heap scorn on Republicans like Devin Nunes for being a Trump toady, but the erosion of congressional authority began long before either of them came along).
This is also an indictment on our coarse and vulgar culture, the rise of 24-seven cable news “entertainment” programming, and unhinged and easily hijacked social media conversations. I could go on...
In an ideal political world, Rosenstein never would have been put in this position. But this is far from an ideal world.
A lot of people like Rosenstein are taking a look around and coming to a similar conclusion: In their minds, at least, they’re the last, best hope we have.