Friday afternoon’s Rod Rosenstein bombshell brought with it a familiar anxiety inside the Trump administration, as aides waited to see just how volcanic the president’s reaction would be to the latest story about backstabbing within his top ranks.
Current and former administration officials said they fully expected President Trump to dismiss staff inside the Justice Department following reports that Rosenstein had contemplated—sarcastically, his defenders say—the idea of wiretapping the president or removing him from office via the 25th Amendment. Less clear was how many people will get the ax and when, exactly, it will fall.
“Trump is gonna go on a jihad,” one former senior White House official told The Daily Beast. The official speculated that Rosenstein’s comments were leaked with just that reaction in mind. “The NYT op-ed gave an opportunity to really drive home the deep state stuff. With this new story, it gives additional credibility.”
The stakes of the latest administration imbroglio could not be higher, as Rosenstein heads the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His position atop that probe has made him a regular target of Trump supporters, and a new round of calls for his dismissal came quickly after the Times story posted Friday afternoon.
Inside the Justice Department’s Washington headquarters, officials immediately started speculating that Rosenstein’s foes would use the story to try to push him out.
“No one knew this was coming and I’m unsure what is going to happen,” one senior DOJ official said, “but most people here are talking about the very real possibility that Rod is on his way out.”
A trial attorney at the Department shared that concern.
“Yeesh,” that attorney said. “Of all the sinister efforts to topple Rosenstein, this one is surely the most conniving yet. There’s of course an irony to the fact that Trump publicly threatened to have taped Comey, but now he will feign outrage that Rosenstein purportedly considered taping him.”
Two DOJ officials told The Daily Beast they fear a Rosenstein ousting would reignite Trump’s efforts to put an end to the Mueller investigation. And another official said that there’s concern that Rosenstein’s potential firing would clear the way for an even more dramatic overhaul of DOJ leadership after the midterm elections. For months, officials have expected such a shake-up––speculation fueled in no small part by the president’s frequent tweets referring to the Department of Justice in scare quotes.
That official, along with others, expressed skepticism that Rosenstein would have sincerely called for covertly recording Trump, echoing the claim of Rosenstein's defenders that this was a case of over-interpreted sarcasm.
“It’s not particularly bright,” the official said, “and he’s a really bright guy.”
For all the uncertainty about Rosenstein, officials say the circumstances surrounding his boss, Jeff Session, look even bleaker. One top former White House aide said that the president’s disgust for his Attorney General was profound and that the likelihood of Sessions lasting far beyond the midterm elections was incredibly small given Trump’s feelings about him.
“I have seen him interact with Rosenstein,” the official said. “It is different. With Sessions it is stone cold. With Rosenstein, it is a little more engaged.”
With today’s report, the odds seemed to drop that Trump even makes it to the midterms before changing up his staff. The Times story, according to sources, was just the latest flare encouraging him to act with haste. Prior to then were numerous books about his White House, almost all of which revolved around a rotating group of top staffers trying to buffer the country from the president’s worst impulses. And then there was a New York Times op-ed, written by a still anonymous senior administration official, that detailed how staff would take papers off of the president’s desk in order to prevent him from putting whatever policy was outlined into place.
The aforementioned top former White House aide noted that it would be hard for Trump to purge his staff of dissidents when there has been so much turnover already. But two sources close to Trump said that he is aware of Friday’s Rosenstein story and is, naturally, incensed by it. Trump, these sources note, was not placated by the sarcasm defense, as he was briefed on the news while traveling outside of Washington, D.C.
“You wouldn’t joke about carrying a bomb on an airplane, would you?” Eric Bolling, a close Trump friend and CRTV host, told The Daily Beast. “Prior to this, I was one of the people telling Trump he should not be removed…Now, I think there are grounds to fire Rosenstein, and put someone else in there, with minimal, if any, political fallout for Trump.”
White House officials advised the president not to bring up Rosenstein during a political rally in Missouri on Friday evening, a senior Trump aide noted. But some of Trump’s closest confidants and informal advisers were quick to pile on the Sack-Rosenstein bandwagon minutes after the Times story published online.
“Rod Rosenstein must be fired today,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who remains tight with the Trump family, tweeted on Friday, making sure to tag, “@realDonaldTrump.” Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, posted to Twitter, “Shocked!!! Absolutely Shocked!!! Ohhh, who are we kidding at this point? No one is shocked that these guys would do anything in their power to undermine @realdonaldtrump.” Jeanine Pirro, another Fox host and Trump whisperer, wrote that Rosenstein should “have been fired long ago for being part of the ‘resistance’ and not providing documents to congress in order to save his corrupt pals.”
“NOW HE MUST BE FIRED,” she emphasized.
While conservative media figures and longtime Trump associates called for Rosenstein’s head, people who had served in the Justice Department lamented the saga and wondered about the fate of those still there.
"The bottom line is, it harms everyone,” said David Rivkin, a former Justice Department official under two Republican administrations. “It harms Rosenstein, it harms the institution, it harms the president. It's all bad. It really depresses me."
—with additional reporting by Lachlan Markay and Erin Banco