President Donald Trump acknowledged on Friday that he is under investigation for firing FBI Director James Comey, and appeared to attack his own deputy attorney general for launching a special counsel probe that has intensified in recent days.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” Trump tweeted.
The president did not immediately clarify the tweet, which likely refers to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but could also refer to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the larger investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.
Rosenstein is overseeing the probe by Mueller, which has expanded to include whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired Comey and allegedly pressured intelligence officials to downplay or undermine the Russia investigation.
Trump’s unusual Friday post – coming at the end of a work week in which he and his top surrogates have openly questioned the integrity of Mueller’s probe and even floated the notion of firing the respected former George W. Bush-era FBI director – has prompted sharp rebukes from leading Democratic lawmakers, as well as seasoned veterans of past Washington scandals.
“I’m growing increasingly concerned that the president will attempt to fire not only Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible obstruction of justice, but also Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein who appointed Mueller,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Feinstein said Trump’s tweets suggest he lacks respect for the rule of law and that they amount to “a blatant violation of the president’s oath of office.” “[I]f the president thinks he can fire Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will shut down the investigation, he’s in for a rude awakening. Even his staunchest supporters will balk at such a blatant effort to subvert the law,” she said.
Former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste said the notion Trump could oust both Mueller and Rosenstein was “outrageous” and he likened it to the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general because both refused to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
“We’re at a very serious inflection point in my view where we must consider whether we’ll continue to be a nation of laws rather than a nation of personalities and partisan grudges,” Ben-Veniste said. “This is not a reality show. This is real. This is not a game of whack-a-mole where you try to disable this or that independent person who pops up to do the job he has been given. It simply cannot square with our Constitution and our system of laws.”
Trump’s latest tweet Friday morning appeared to be a reference to a memo Rosenstein issued shortly after assuming his position in the DOJ. In the memo, Rosenstein published a blistering assessment of Comey’s performance as FBI director, pointing to his unusual handling of last year’s Hillary Clinton email investigation. But Rosenstein’s memo didn’t explicitly recommend Comey’s firing, and Rosenstein himself later said he wrote the memo after learning Trump already intended to fire Comey.
Trump himself told NBC News he had already planned to fire the FBI director, citing in part the pressure of the Russia investigation on his White House.
Rosenstein’s memo, though, did strongly suggest that a change in FBI leadership would be beneficial.
"Although the President has the power to remove an FBI director, the decision should not be taken lightly. I agree with the nearly unanimous opinions of former Department officials," Rosenstein wrote. "The way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”
Though Rosenstein himself authorized Mueller’s investigation, he testified last week that Mueller has complete independence to pursue the matter as he sees fit. Some of Trump’s allies have encouraged the president to fire Mueller, but Rosenstein has insisted he is the only one with authority to do so, and that he believes Mueller — widely respected by both parties in Washington — is doing his job properly.
Immediately after Comey’s ouster, Feinstein called for Rosenstein, too, to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and for a career DOJ official to handle the matter instead. But Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller appeared to calm nerves on both sides of the aisle. Democrats indicated they were comfortable with Rosenstein overseeing the probe, if only because they trusted Mueller to report any potential interference.
On Friday, though, the Democratic National Committee called for Rosenstein’s recusal and urged DOJ to bypass other Trump appointees and hand the matter to a career official.
Several White House scandal veterans told POLITICO this week that it’s only a matter of time before Rosenstein recuses himself from being the official liaison to the Mueller probe. That move is necessary, they explained, because Rosenstein is likely going to be an integral part of the expanding investigation – the special counsel staff now includes 13 prosecutors plus Mueller, and it intends to keep hiring — on the obstruction of justice case.
“He’s going to be an important witness in this case potentially. He’s definitely going to get interviewed,” said Peter Zeidenberg, who served on the DOJ special prosecution team during the George W. Bush-era Valerie Plame Wilson CIA leak investigation and now works as a partner at Arent Fox.
Reports emerged earlier this week suggesting Mueller’s probe had begun looking at the prospect of obstruction by Trump himself. Trump fired Comey on May 9 while Comey was overseeing the initial Russia investigation. Comey has since testified that Trump had asked him repeatedly to publicly announce he was not under investigation. Comey gave him private assurances that he was not a target of the investigation at that stage. The FBI director during his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee said it was on Mueller to make the legal determination on whether to pursue obstruction of justice charges, and now Trump himself acknowledges he’s being investigated by the special counsel.
This week, Trump surrogates have questioned Mueller’s integrity leading the special counsel probe because of his long-standing friendship with Comey. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also criticized Mueller for adding several prosecutors to his team who have donated to Democrats. On Thursday, Trump joined the chorus, tweeting the Russia probe was being “led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
The president’s latest social media missive Friday appears to have turned his ire toward Rosenstein, who he nominated to the second-highest post in the Justice Department earlier this year. Though typically, the attorney general would have the authority to hire or dismiss a special counsel, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in March from any decision-making authority over the Russia probe.
Trump’s Twitter attack comes a day after Rosenstein issued a cryptic statement, urging Americans not to believe news stories that cite undisclosed sources.
“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country — let alone the branch or agency of government — with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated. Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations,” the statement read.
Politically, both Democrats and Republicans in recent days have warned Trump about the consequences if he did pull the trigger and fire the senior current and former DOJ officials who have the reins on the Russia investigation.
“I think firing Mueller could trigger an impeachment process,” Chris Ruddy, CEO of the conservative publication Newsmax said earlier this week in an interview just hours before visiting senior Trump aides at the White House. “It could be very dangerous.”
“It might be something he might not be able to recover from,” added Ben-Veniste.
But others aren’t so sure, especially after a presidential campaign that saw Trump survive a series of seemingly fatal missteps that in past election cycles have sunk other White House contenders. “Everyone says it would be a disaster to fire him, but is that right?” said one prominent Washington-based attorney who works with the Trump White House. “Have norms shifted so much that even a ‘massacre’ does not matter?”