Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested to Justice Department colleagues last year that he secretly record conversations with President Donald Trump in the White House, but at least one person who was present said he was joking.
The conversation was first reported by the New York Times, which described secondhand accounts suggesting Rosenstein was serious about the proposal. The report said he also discussed identifying cabinet members willing to invoke the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of a president who’s unfit for office.
The person who was in the room when Rosenstein made the comment about wearing a wire said there was never an intention of actually recording a conversation with the president. The person asked not to be identified.
Rosenstein disputed the Times account of the comments, which it reported he made just weeks after becoming deputy attorney general and being caught up in the uproar over Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.
“I never pursued or authorized recording the president and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the president is absolutely false,” he said in a statement released Friday night.
In a statement to the Times earlier, Rosenstein called the article “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,” he told the Times. “But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
The report is explosive because Rosenstein appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller. If Rosenstein is fired or quits, a successor could rein in or end the probe into Russian election interference that the president has long denounced as a “witch hunt” initiated by anti-Trump forces in the FBI and the Justice Department.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer quickly warned Trump against seizing on the report as a reason to dismiss Rosenstein.
“This story must not be used as a pretext for the corrupt purpose of firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in order install an official who will allow the president to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation,” Schumer said in a statement. He added that many “White House and cabinet officials have been reported to say critical things of the president without being fired.”
The White House declined immediate comment, but the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted: “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. ”
Republican Representative Jim Jordan, who has been among lawmakers most critical of the Russia probe, said the new report doesn’t mean he and other conservatives will renew an earlier push for Rosenstein’s impeachment.
“We don’t know if Rosenstein is telling the truth, or if the New York Times is wrong,” he said. But the Judiciary Committee member said “this an indication how messed up the top levels of the FBI and Justice Department were.”
Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the panel should hold a hearing on Rosenstein “in order to ascertain the truth.”
The Times said some of the memos capturing Rosenstein’s comments had been written by Andrew McCabe, who was acting FBI director at the time and was later fired amid allegations that he “lacked candor” about authorizing the FBI to talk to the media about a criminal inquiry related to Hillary Clinton.
“Andrew McCabe drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions,” McCabe’s lawyer Michael Bromwich said in a statement.
“When he was interviewed by the Special Counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos — classified and unclassified — to the Special Counsel’s office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos,” Bromwich said.
Some conservative Republicans critical of Rosenstein were cautious in saying whether they would trust allegations in memos from McCabe, who has been even more an even more frequent target of their condemnation.
“Andy McCabe is under investigation for lying to the FBI. His words and memos should be viewed with extreme skepticism,” Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who heads the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, said in a tweet. “But if this story is true, it underscores a gravely troubling culture at FBI/DOJ and the need for FULL transparency. Declassify everything. Let Americans judge.”