Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who wrote the memorandum firing James Comey is back in the news today. Various news organizations are reporting that he allegedly threatened to quit after the White House represented that Comey was fired based on his recommendation. Both the Washington Post and ABC News are reporting that Rosenstein was sufficiently outraged by the White House statements that he was prepared to walk. The reporting is highly disturbing on a number of levels. The White House made a notable change in its account of the decision yesterday — admitting that Trump decided that he wanted Comey gone over a week earlier. Of course, this does not change the fact that Rosenstein recommended the firing of Comey in the memo but it raises serious questions of the veracity of the White House. UPDATE: The White House is categorically denying that Rosenstein threatened to resign. More importantly, Rosenstein has denied that he threatened to resign though it is not clear if he denied calling the White House to object to its portrayal of the facts leading to the termination.
I have been critical of the coverage of the decision including the statements of experts at CNN and other outlets saying that Comey had to be fired because the investigation was getting too close to Trump and that the Rosenstein memo was “a lie.” I still do not believe that those hyperbolic accounts are justified. There has been no serious allegation of a crime in the Russian controversy beyond the reporting/registration violations of people like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. However, if these reports are accurate, the White House fundamentally misrepresented the key facts leading to this decision. As I have said since the firing, I believe that the removal of Comey makes the case for an appointment of a Special Counsel (something I previously questioned as warranted). The reason is the loss of credibility of this Administration for millions of citizens. This report will only deepen that crisis.
On Good Morning America, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, said she was not aware of any threat by Rosenstein to resign. However, various sites are relying on inside sources that say that Rosenstein was sufficiently irate to threaten a resignation only two weeks after his confirmation.
The question raised by the reports is whether the memo did indeed reflect the view of Rosenstein that Comey deserved to be fired as opposed to stating the basis for such a firing (if the President wanted to use his authority to do so).
However, Rosenstein was asked by a Sinclair Broadcast Group reporter if he made such a threat. Rosenstein responded, “No, I’m not quitting.” That would seem a denial of the allegation though it was a tad ambiguous. The question was not whether he was quitting but threatened to do so. However, the White House has also denied the story.
The New York Times seemed to suggest that the memo was demanded rather than volunteered. The editors wrote “In ordering you to write the memo exploited the integrity you have earned over nearly three decades in public service, spending down your credibility as selfishly as he has spent other people’s money throughout his business career.” That is a very serious allegation. It suggests that the memo was not Rosenstein’s idea or possibly his preference. That could open up a legitimate area for congressional inquiry.
The reported facts suggest that the President wanted to fire Comey and raised the issue with Sessions and Rosenstein. Reports also indicate that Trump was irate over the Russian investigation and his view that Comey was not supportive in addressing rumors and allegations. If Rosenstein agreed that Comey should be fired, the substantive basis for the decision would still track his memorandum. Rosenstein presumably would have resigned if the termination did not coincide with his own views of the merits on the question.
In his memo, Rosenstein spoke in the first person and was unambiguous in his recommendation:
We should reject the departure and return to the traditions.
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. 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.