Just when it was starting to look like America had survived the bogus New York Times story about Rod Rosenstein, and Donald Trump wasn’t going to fire him after all, there are widespread and partially conflicting reports that Rosenstein is on his way out. Some major news outlets say he’s already resigned. Others say he’s refusing to resign, and he’s en route to the White House to make his case to keep his job. Still others have a different story. I’m not going to go into them all, because obviously, some (or all) of these reports are wrong. I don’t know what the real story is yet, and it doesn’t appear anyone else does either. But many of you have begun asking what happens if Trump does fire Rosenstein today, so let’s talk about that.
Unfortunately, that’s not a particularly easy question to answer with any certainty. If Donald Trump does oust Rod Rosenstein today, he would be tossing American democracy – and his own shirt – into a particularly high stakes game of poker. Keep in mind that even Trump’s biggest cheerleader Sean Hannity said the other night that Trump would be taking far too big of a risk by firing Rosenstein. That’s because Trump has no way to gauge what the political or legal blowback to this move would be. For all we know, Rosenstein Robert Mueller might have indictments in place to be unsealed in precisely this scenario.
In the immediate term, Department of Justice Solicitor General Noel Francisco is currently the #3 at the DOJ, and he may inherit control of Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation. One thing to keep in mind here is that Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein, and Francisco have made a point in recent months of putting up a united front whenever Trump has attacked the DOJ. On the other hand, former U.S. government ethics watchdog Walter Shaub now says that Francisco has long been recused due to a conflict of interest. So who would inherit the Trump-Russia investigation in that case? It’s not at all clear.
What this really comes down to is why Donald Trump is firing Rosenstein today, if he is indeed firing him. Some are assuming that this is part of a plot to fire Robert Mueller. But if that were the case, wouldn’t Trump have initiated it awhile ago, instead of waiting for a flimsy excuse like the phony New York Times article? Considering Trump’s temperament, it’s entirely possible that he’s firing Rosenstein out of personal spite, and that this is not a sign he’s preparing to try to move on Mueller. It’s also possible that Trump is making this move today because his Kavanaugh nomination is falling to pieces thanks to several new accusers, and he feels he needs a huge distraction.
Without knowing why Donald Trump is (apparently) firing Rod Rosenstein, it’s difficult to predict what will happen next. If Francisco inherits the Trump-Russia investigation and he keeps Mueller in place, and Trump is content with that, then it’s not clear how much or little will have changed. If Francisco makes moves against Mueller, or if Trump also fires Francisco and/or Sessions, or tries to change the DOJ hierarchy, then we’ll be talking about a very different story.
One thing to keep in mind: Donald Trump has spent the several months unfairly ruining the careers and lives of DOJ and FBI figures like Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok. None of these firings have impacted the Trump-Russia investigation, which seems to have been the point. He’s been – to use a horrible phrase for lack of a more apt one – kicking the dogs he can kick. He’s gambled that he could take out his rage on pretty much anyone but Mueller, and he’d get away with it – and he’s been proven correct about that.
So if Donald Trump does go through with forcing Rod Rosenstein out of a job today, does this mean that he’s suddenly decided he’s bold (and desperate) enough to make a risky move that’ll significantly up the stakes for both sides? Or is this simply a matter of Trump taking out his frustrations on yet another arbitrary target, while continuing to leave Mueller alone? We should begin getting those answers very quickly, and it’ll dictate everything that happens next.
One key thing to keep an eye on today: if Rosenstein is out, watch Robert Mueller closely for his next move. If he believes his own job is safe, we could see business as usual from him. But if Mueller thinks he’s also in danger of getting fired, he could make a move aimed at signaling to Trump that he’d better back off. So now’s the time to ask yourself what kinds of sealed indictments Mueller may have had up his sleeve on all along, just for this occasion. Also keep in mind that, with the chaotic manner in which these things play out, Rod Rosenstein may well not get fired.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report