President Donald Trump refused to say on Friday whether he would dismiss the top Justice Department official overseeing the Russia investigation after declassifying a disputed Republican memo he alleged demonstrated disgraceful behavior.
“You figure that one out,” Trump said when asked by reporters in the Oval Office if he was considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Reporters also asked if he retained confidence in Rosenstein; Trump was responding to both questions with his terse reply.
Rosenstein assumed oversight of the Russia investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters last year. Trump has fumed about the ongoing probe, declaring it a “witch hunt” concocted by Democrats to damage him politically.
Trump had hoped the controversial Republican memo, crafted by the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, would help discredit top officials at the FBI and Justice Department, thereby undermining the Russia investigation.
The memo states that Rosenstein — who was elevated under Trump — signed off on at least one FISA application for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Rosenstein’s role in renewing the FISA warrants has sparked Trump’s ire.
Without naming Rosenstein specifically, Trump bemoaned what he claimed was disgraceful behavior during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.
“I think it is a disgrace what is happening in our country and when you look at that and you see that and so many other things what is going on, a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that,” Trump said.
As CNN has previously reported, the President has vented recently about wanting to fire Rosenstein. But for now, it remains unclear whether he’s willing to take such an extraordinary step, particularly given the consequences he faced after dismissing former FBI Director James Comey.
In a statement on Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the memo “raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.”
Sanders didn’t offer clarity on Rosenstein’s future, but said Trump has “great respect” for law enforcement officials and members of the US intelligence community.
“He is especially grateful to the hardworking rank-and-file public servants who work every day to keep America safe and uphold our laws while protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans,” Sanders wrote.
In a letter to Trump on Friday, top Senate and House Democrats warned the President that using the newly released Memo as a pretext to fire either special counsel Robert Mueller or Rosenstein would be met with grave consequences.
“We write to inform you that we would consider such an unwarranted action as an attempt to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation. Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ Leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre,” the lawmakers wrote, referencing the 1973 episode that saw the departures of top officials from President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department during the Watergate investigation.
Earlier Friday, Sessions himself broke with Trump, going off-script during remarks about human trafficking to praise his deputy, declaring that Rosenstein — along with the agency’s No. 3 official Rachel Brand — “both represent the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.”
Trump had a short window to allow the release of the previously classified memo after the House intelligence panel voted along party lines to release it on Monday. The White House said he conducted a thorough national security and legal review before clearing the way for the memo’s public disclosure.
But in reality, Trump has long pushed for the memo to be made public. He has told associates the document could undercut the FBI Russia investigation led by Mueller. His views have been validated by a chorus of conservative voices, including those on Fox News, which he watches regularly.
In a letter to lawmakers that accompanied the memo, Trump’s top lawyer wrote the decision came because of the “significant public interest” in the document.
“The President understands that the protection of our national security represents his highest obligation,” White House counsel Don McGahn wrote in the letter, which was dated Friday. But he went on to declare that established standards set by past presidents “permit declassification when the public interest in disclosure outweighs any need to protect the information.”
McGahn wrote the review process included input from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department. And he underscored the document “reflects the judgments of its congressional authors” and not necessarily the White House.