WASHINGTON — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein floated the idea of secretly recording President Donald Trump last year amid law enforcement concerns about chaos in the White House, according to people familiar with exchanges at the time. But one person who was present said Rosenstein was just being sarcastic.
The comments were first reported by The New York Times, which also said that Rosenstein raised the idea of using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump as unfit for office. The report, which Rosenstein denied, creates even greater uncertainty for him in his position at a time when Trump has lambasted Justice Department leadership and publicly humiliated both him and Attorney General Jeff Session.
The reported conversation took place during a tense May 2017 meeting involving acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, another frequent target of Trump's wrath. McCabe was temporarily elevated after Director James Comey was fired, but was himself fired this year. McCabe documented conversations with senior officials, including Trump, in a series of memos that have since been provided to special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia investigation.
The interactions lay bare the conflicts within the FBI and Justice Department early in the Trump administration after Rosenstein, just weeks into his job, wrote a memo about Comey that the White House used as justification for firing the FBI director.
In a statement, Rosenstein called the Times story "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."
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution spells out that a president can be declared "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" upon a majority vote of the vice president and the Cabinet.
One of the people briefed on the conversation in question said it occurred during a moment of frustration between McCabe and Rosenstein. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the conversation.
Rosenstein was rankled by the revelation that Comey had kept memos about his interactions with the president, while McCabe wanted a more aggressive approach toward the White House, the person said.
At that point, Rosenstein said to McCabe something to the effect of, "What do you want, you want me to wear a wire?" according to the person. Rosenstein was then asked in the meeting if he was serious, and he said yes, but he thought the question he was responding to referred to something else and he did not mean for the wire comment to be taken seriously, the person said.
McCabe's lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement that his client had 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." The statement did not address the content of the memos.
Rosenstein has been a target of Trump's ire since appointing Mueller as a Justice Department special counsel to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
He chose Mueller for the job one week after he laid the groundwork for the firing of Comey by writing a memo that criticized Comey's handling of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. The White House initially held up that memo as justification for Comey's firing, though Trump himself has said he was thinking about "this Russia thing" when he made the move.
As deputy attorney general, Rosenstein oversees Mueller's work and has made two public announcements of indictments brought by the special counsel — one against Russians accused of hacking into Democratic email accounts, the other against Russians accused of running a social media troll farm to sway public opinion.
On Friday, Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted the Times' story and said: "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."
The story also elicited a quick response from members of Congress.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus, said in a tweet that "if this story is true, it underscores a gravely troubling culture at FBI/DOJ and the need for FULL transparency."
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Times 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."