Rod Rosenstein, the embattled deputy attorney general overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Thursday amid growing fears that the president may oust Rosenstein in an attempt to rein in the Russia probe.
A source familiar with the meeting said the topic of the White House meeting was outstanding document requests from Congress -- a front-and-center complaint among some Hill Republicans and Trump allies who have been clamoring for Rosenstein’s firing.
While the source said Rosenstein exited the meeting with his job still intact, the topic of the meeting – one that would usually be below the level of a presidential discussion – stoked concerns that Trump may be pursuing a backhand way to undercut Mueller’s wider Russia investigation without sparking an outright constitutional crisis.
Rosenstein, the No. 2 DOJ official who has lead authority over Mueller’s probe because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, has increasingly come under fire from Trump and White House allies after he reportedly authorized an FBI raid on Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime personal attorney.
He’s also drawn Republicans’ complaints for not more quickly turning over an unredacted version of a two-page document that the FBI used to initiate its investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts. Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, earlier this week threatened to pursue impeachment proceedings against Rosenstein if he didn’t turn over the document – a crisis that Rosenstein may have averted by submitting the document on Wednesday.
Still, the calls for Rosenstein to go haven’t abated.
Joseph diGenova, a former federal prosecutor who nearly joined Trump’s Russia legal team last month, said during a Wednesday night interview on Fox News that Sessions should fire his top deputy.
“Rod Rosenstein is so incompetent, compromised and conflicted that he can no longer serve as the deputy attorney general,” diGenova told network host Sean Hannity during his nightly program, which Trump himself had touted just minutes before it aired on Twitter.
Trump earlier on Wednesday went after both Mueller and Rosenstein directly and blamed them for sour U.S. relations on key policy issues with Moscow. “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!” the president posted on Twitter.
Rosenstein under DOJ regulations has the authority to fire Mueller for good cause. He’s also in charge of approving Mueller’s budget and all of his major enforcement moves, from issuing subpoenas to obtaining any grand jury indictment.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney from Michigan, said she was concerned Trump could immediately replace Rosenstein with an ally in the acting deputy attorney general role who – at least for a nominal period – would not require Senate confirmation and who’d be more open to adding restrictions to the special counsel probe.
“You can get an interim who can do some things outside the public eye and won’t end the investigation but might curtail it a little bit,” she said.
But terminating Rosenstein likely would cause a backlash in Congress, too. House and Senate GOP and Democratic leaders have defended Rosenstein, with some equating the move to taking out Mueller.
“If Rosenstein were to be fired with a view toward constraining the investigation, that would be in plain sight, in daylight a very deliberate crime, it would be an obstruction of justice,” warned Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
"Firing Rod Rosenstein, to me, is the same as firing Bob Mueller,” added Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Joining the ranks of Rosenstein supporters on Thursday was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
"Yeah, I think so,” Grassley responded when asked by reporters in the Capitol if he backed Rosenstein. “But that doesn’t mean that I think he’s doing the right thing."
Grassley did raise his voice in warning DOJ officials of all stripes to take their responsibilities to respond to congressional oversight requests more seriously.
"I think all of the Justice Department, under Republicans and Democrats, do not keep their promise to us when they make a statement when they’re up for confirmation" that they will furnish requested information to Congress.
"They all turn out to be liars," Grassley said. "And they ought to really say ‘maybe’ if they want to be honest."
Even as Trump’s meeting with Rosenstein set off fresh speculation that the president is seeking to undermine the Russia probe, Trump on Thursday afternoon issued a vote of confidence for his legal team, tweeting that he agrees with the cooperative approach to Mueller’s investigation advocated by White House lawyer Ty Cobb.
"I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!)," the president’s tweet read. "I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my Special Counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process."
It’s not clear if Trump himself wrote the tweet, which was posted moments before Rosenstein was spotted by a reporter leaving the White House.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the Trump-Rosenstein meeting involved “routine department business.”
But Matthew Miller, a former Obama-era DOJ press secretary, called the meeting highly unusual and out of step with Justice protocol.
“If the president needs to meet with someone from the department it would be the Attorney General. And the only things he would meet with the Deputy AG about are the things for which he [the AG] is recused, and Trump shouldn’t be talking about that with anyone from the department,” said Miller, who noted Mueller’s investigation is focused on the Trump campaign and the president himself.
A meeting purportedly about document production, even if it is about something unrelated like the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, should also be off limits because of how politicized Mueller and Rosenstein’s work has become, Miller said.
It’s also unusual for a sitting president to get personally involved in an issue such as document production simply to help expedite matters normally handled by people many levels below him.
“If he wants to use document production as a pretext to undermine a DOJ investigation or to fire DOJ officials, then it is wholly inappropriate,” he said.
Elana Schor, Kyle Cheney and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.