The New York Times published a blockbuster article (citing anonymous sources) reporting that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested to other officials within the FBI and Justice Department that he should secretly tape President Donald Trump, and discussed using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
Rosenstein denies the Times account, and former officials say it sounds like something Rosenstein would joke about rather than seriously suggest But the article, combined with Bob Woodward's new behind-the-scenes book, "Fear," and the anonymous Times op-ed described as written by a high-level official claiming that a secret "resistance" inside the administration was keeping Trump in check, adds to the already compelling evidence that Trump's White House is out of control.
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Even Trump's closest advisers apparently don't have confidence that the commander in chief can be trusted to handle the job.
For critics of the administration, Rosenstein has emerged as a hero.
Rosenstein has appeared to be resolute in protecting the integrity of Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has not allowed the President's incessant attacks to shake his resolve, occasionally pushing back on ones that have been made on him. His supporters believe that Rosenstein has been the only thing preventing an enraged President from shutting down Mueller's team of legal eagles.
Yet the Times article also brings back the question of what exactly these officials think they are accomplishing. While some Americans who are unsettled by Trump's antics might draw comfort from believing that "adults" in the room are keeping him under control, the Times now reminds us how much silence there has been from those in the know and how complicit these officials have been in propping up an administration they don't think is viable.
Rosenstein seems to know that President Trump cannot be trusted to handle sensitive information. He wrote a memo critical of how the former FBI Director James Comey had handled the Hillary Clinton investigation, but was reportedly shocked when Trump publicly used his work to support his decision to fire Comey.
And he knows better than anyone else how President Trump has been willing to mount an all-out assault on the legitimacy of law enforcement institutions. He has watched the President discredit him, discredit Mueller, discredit Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and discredit anyone who poses a threat to him. The President has played fast and loose with the facts as he has spread false information through his Twitter feed.
But Rosenstein has chosen to remain part of this administration anyway. After allegedly being so upset with how President Trump handled the Clinton memo, he should have understood the risks of producing any kind of work for Trump given how it could be misused.
There have also been several occasions when Rosenstein chose to appease the Freedom Caucus, Trump's allies on Capitol Hill, rather than stand up to them. He allowed Republican legislators to review unredacted FBI documents about the Russia investigation and he has been responsive to Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, even as they move to impeach him. In other words, with President Trump and with the Freedom Caucus, Rosenstein has tried to straddle the center when dealing with political leaders who have no interest in rational governance.
Now the revelations about Rosenstein threaten to give Trump the very ammunition that he has been looking for to purge the Justice Department. What is the likelihood that he will use this story, even while denying its veracity, to declare that Rosenstein has been plotting against him and can't be trusted to oversee an investigation into the administration?
It didn't take Donald Trump Jr. long to tweet out: "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."
Rosenstein, who has done more than almost anyone to try to protect the separation of the Department of Justice from an aggressive President, might end up being the rationale for Trump to move forward with his own version of the Saturday Night Massacre.
The Times article appears to give further evidence that reasonable and dutiful White House officials who fear this President but refuse to say so publicly, remain part of the problem. They give credibility to the White House and help to mask the threats that the nation faces from the commander in chief.
If the private fears that we keep hearing about are accurate, it is time for these officials to air their views more publicly. The elections this November will determine the balance of power in Congress. By working in the shadows and keeping dramatic observations to themselves, even the most well-meaning officials become part of the apparatus that insulates the Trump presidency.