Are Rod Rosenstein’s days numbered? On Monday the internet went through several news cycles in a few hours. Social media was convinced that the deputy attorney general had been fired, or resigned, or that his dismissal or resignation were imminent, unless, of course, they weren’t.
A fact and a theory help explain the fog obscuring Rosenstein’s status. Fact first: Despite his “You’re fired” TV catchphrase, President Donald Trump loathes face-to-face confrontation and rarely fires anyone. Theory second: The Rosenstein controversy is useful to Trump as a dramatist, offering him the chance to deflect attention from the Brett Kavanaugh fiasco.
Rumor has it that Trump has long been itching to get rid of Rosenstein, who oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. But the Rosenstein affair blossomed with a Friday New York Times report on his musings about secretly recording Trump and seeking to remove Trump under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which permits the replacement of an impaired chief executive. His state of mind at the time when he made these comments—was he serious or joking?—doesn’t matter all that much; if he indeed made them, it was highly inappropriate.
So far, Trump has chosen not to use the Times report as a pretext, and that makes a certain sort of sense.
During interviews I conducted with Trump for my 2015 biography of him, he told me that he is so conflict-averse that he had to get himself psyched up whenever he pretend-fired contestants on his reality TV show, The Apprentice. Indeed, the only story he shared about actually dismissing someone in real life involved workers whom he let go because Johnny Carson mistakenly thought they had swiped a coat from his Trump Tower apartment. Otherwise, Trump avoids such clashes. That’s why he sent an emissary with a letter when he fired FBI Director James Comey, and why White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was tasked with firing Steve Bannon and Anthony Scaramucci.
In Rosenstein’s case, Trump is no doubt wary of simply firing the man, because he’s a serious person with a stellar reputation and real power of his own. And Trump knows that a storm of criticism would follow his dismissal, especially since Rosenstein’s offense is more a matter of personal disloyalty than dereliction of duty.
Despite Trump’s inaction, Rosenstein acted. As a normal bureaucrat serving at the pleasure of the president, he did the normal thing and reportedly offered his resignation to Kelly on Monday.
Never normal, it seems the Trump administration neither accepted nor rejected Rosenstein’s offer. Instead, in soap-opera-cliff-hanger fashion, the White House announced the next installment will come on Thursday, when Trump returns from his trip to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. Look for TV-network coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Kavanaugh to be interrupted for Rosenstein’s arrival at the White House, his departure, and even an impromptu presidential press conference.
This craziness, too, makes a certain sort of sense.
The original scoop on Rosenstein’s offer to resign came from the Axios reporter Jonathan Swan. Gabriel Sherman, a Vanity Fair reporter, says his “source briefed on Trump’s thinking” believes that Swan’s “source with direct knowledge” was trying to kick Kavanaugh out of the news cycle.
Considering Trump’s penchant for manipulation and drama, I’d wager that’s right. I’d wager he has known about Rosenstein’s loose talk for weeks, if not months. As a man with a genius for seeing opportunities where others see threat, he would have reserved this information, waited for a moment when he needed to change the subject in Washington, and then authorized someone to give it to The New York Times. No matter what he says about fake news, Trump respects the Times and trusted that the paper would see the news value in the story—and run with it. (In the same way he knew Rosenstein was honorable and would tender his resignation.) A scandal was born, and the president could control how it would play out.
As he watched the Rosenstein story eclipse the Kavanaugh imbroglio, Trump must have felt like he had worked his magic. In the old days, he had to be satisfied with convincing the New York tabloids that Carla Bruni and Kim Basinger were hounding him for a date, or that the British royals were eying apartments at Trump Tower. Now he can get media outlets around the world to turn away from other news, all at once, and focus on whatever he pleases.
However, the Rosenstein news (or non-news) pushed Kavanaugh out of the chyrons only for a matter of hours. On the bigger stage Trump strides today, the stakes are much higher and the other players are more powerful. Reality is much harder to shape than reality TV.