On Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made very clear in Senate testimony that he would not fire special counsel Robert Mueller without “good cause,” no matter what the desires of President Donald Trump.
It was a direct promise not to obey such a potentially unlawful order from Trump, who earlier this week had been said to be desiring such a move.
This promise seems to have put Rosenstein directly in Trump’s crosshairs. On Friday, the president fired his opening public salvo on Twitter:
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
Rosenstein, as you’ll recall, wrote a memo before James Comey was fired criticizing the former FBI director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case. Attorney General Jeff Sessions then held up that memo to justify Comey’s firing. This pretextual case, however, soon came undone when the president said on national television that the reason for the firing was actually because Trump didn’t like the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s interference in our election and whether or not his campaign colluded in that cyberattack in any way. At the time, Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s memo and that Russia was on his mind.
"In fact when I decided to just do it,” the president acknowledged, “I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.' "
After this statement it was revealed that Comey had taken contemporaneous notes on meetings with Trump in which the president allegedly asked him to drop at least part of the investigation and asked him for a pledge of loyalty. Trump has denied this publicly through his lawyer and in a press conference in which he said "100 percent" he would give his version of events to Mueller, who he is now considering firing. Comey has sworn to it under oath. Other federal officials were also reportedly asked to lean on Comey, according to the reporting of the Washington Post. Trump also reportedly told key Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting that he was facing “great pressure because of Russia” and that was “taken off” because of his Comey firing. All of this is apparently the bones of Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation of the president.
Trump has now acknowledged that investigation and is apparently lumping Rosenstein in as an investigator. He’s also apparently returning back to the original pretextual argument for firing Comey and saying that Rosenstein “told” him to fire Comey. In congressional testimony last month, Rosenstein said his memo was never meant to be such a recommendation. “My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination,” he said at the time.
Fox News reported that the president was talking about Rosenstein in the tweet.
This all could be setting up the groundwork for a possible replay of the famous “Saturday Night Massacre” in which Richard Nixon fired his attorney general and other Department of Justice officials until he found one who would terminate the special prosecutor who was investigating the president. Or it could just be Trump spouting off on Twitter. Or, perhaps, Trump was trying to put pressure on Rosenstein to recuse himself from the investigation. According to “sources” in an ABC News report on Friday, the deputy attorney general “has privately acknowledged to colleagues that he may have to recuse himself from the matter, which he took charge of only after Attorney General Jeff Sessions' own recusal.” Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand would be next in line to take over the investigation.
Whatever is going on, it’s clear that Trump is trying to rally his supporters against both Mueller and Rosenstein. For now, top Republican officials in Congress have maintained that the investigators should be allowed to do their jobs.
According to an AP poll released on Thursday, 60 percent of Americans think Trump tried to interfere in the Russia investigation and 62 percent are extremely or moderately confident that Mueller’s investigation can be fair.