The New York Times published an explosive report Friday afternoon, claiming, via anonymous sources, that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein openly speculated about wearing a wire to record President Donald Trump and floated the idea of building support within the administration to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
Like I said, it's explosive.
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Rosenstein denied the report in broad terms. Here's his full statement:
"The New York Times's story is inaccurate and factually incorrect. I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment."
For his part, Trump has said nothing -- yet -- about the report. The President is traveling in the West, having held a campaign rally for Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) on Thursday night in Las Vegas and he has another one Friday night in Springfield, Missouri, for Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley. (He almost certainly will, of course, and I'll update this when he does.)
The Times report and Rosenstein's denial raise all sorts of questions. Here are five big ones I have after reading it:
1. Who leaked this?
The sourcing as described by the Times says only this about its sourcing for the piece:
"Several people described the episodes, insisting on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The people were briefed either on the events themselves or on memos written by F.B.I. officials, including Andrew G. McCabe, then the acting bureau director, that documented Mr. Rosenstein's actions and comments."
That leaves lots and lots of room for speculation -- most of which will center on the McCabe memos, which apparently the Times' reporters have. "He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos," McCabe's lawyer told the Times. That attorney also confirmed that special counsel Robert Mueller's office had been given copies of all memos written by McCabe documenting conversations with senior FBI brass in the days and weeks after James Comey was fired as FBI director by Trump in the spring of 2017.
Who gave the memos to the Times? McCabe, a regular target of Trump's ire who was fired after an internal review suggested he had acted inappropriately in his conduct during a probe into the Clinton Foundation, has said -- through his lawyer -- it wasn't him. It could be someone on Mueller's team. But why would they leak memos that would make it more likely Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel probe and has been supportive of the effort, would be fired?
Given all of that, there's also the possibility that someone within the White House leaked the McCabe memos as a way to lay the groundwork for firing Rosenstein and replacing him with someone less favorably inclined to the Mueller investigation. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe last year due to his close ties to Trump during the 2016 campaign.)
2. Was Rosenstein joking?
In the Times piece, there's a testimonial from a Justice Department official who was there when Rosenstein made the comment about wearing a wire and insists the remark was made sarcastically. That may well be the way Rosenstein -- and his allies -- try to wriggle out of this; it was all a misunderstood joke! Of course, these lines from the Times report suggest that may be easier said than done: "According to the others who described his comments, Mr. Rosenstein not only confirmed that he was serious about the idea but also followed up by suggesting that other F.B.I. officials who were interviewing to be the bureau's director could also secretly record Mr. Trump."
One man's sarcasm could be another man's seriousness, I suppose, but this seems like an awfully well-sourced story for it to be premised on nothing more than a misunderstanding about Rosenstein's sense of humor (or lack thereof).
3. Why didn't Rosenstein follow through on the wire or the 25th Amendment talk?
If Rosenstein was concerned enough about Trump and how he was conducting himself in office that he proposed the potential candidate to be FBI director wear a wire when sitting for job interviews with Trump, why was there no follow-up? If you were that worried about the President compromising the independence and integrity of the Justice Department (and the country), wouldn't you consider other methods -- even if people shot down the wear-a-wire one?
Ditto the 25th Amendment. If Rosenstein was concerned enough about Trump's fitness for office that he had put thought into what Cabinet officials might join his effort (Sessions and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly were the apparent targets) then why did Rosenstein simply drop any sort of effort to expose or correct Trump's issue in office? It seems like a pretty damn big thing to just, well, drop.
4. Why is Rosenstein's denial of the 25th Amendment stuff in the present tense?
Rosenstein had no option -- unless he wanted to resign or be fired immediately -- but to issue a denial of the Times story. But, the denial is broad enough as to be somewhat meaningless. Rosenstein never says, specifically, what the Times piece gets wrong and what the real story is.
In fact, the only detail in the Rosenstein statement is this one: "Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment." There "is" no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment. If Rosenstein never mentioned the idea of the 25th Amendment, why not say something like: "There has never been and is not now any reason to invoke the 25th Amendment." Not doing that suggests Rosenstein at least weighed the possibility -- even if it never wound up going anywhere.
5. Is Rosenstein the author of the anonymous New York Times op-ed?
The op-ed, published earlier this month, makes the case that there is an active effort within the Trump administration to subvert the President's worst instincts in order to keep the country safe. The attribution of the op-ed, which roiled the political world and drove Trump into a tizzy, was only a "senior Trump administration official." Which, of course, could describe Rosenstein (as well as lots and lots of other people too!).
Donald Trump Jr., the President's eldest son, made clear in a tweet Friday that he believes Rosenstein was the anonymous author. "We likely have a winner in the search for 'anonymous,'" wrote Trump Jr. "Anything to subvert a president who is actually getting things done for America... for a change."
Clearly conscious of the fact that the op-ed would be on the mind of anyone reading the Rosenstein news story, the two authors of the Times piece on Rosenstein included this line about the anonymous writer: "That person's identity is unknown to journalists in the Times news department."
Which, of course, doesn't rule out that Rosenstein wrote it. Just that the two authors don't know who wrote the piece.
There are, obviously, plenty more questions. And, it's hard to imagine that there will be no further reverberations from this story over the coming hours and days as official Washington processes it. That shaking-up process may well answer some of the questions above but will almost certainly create other new ones.
What a story.