President Donald Trump defused the tension building around a closely watched meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein slated for Thursday, suggesting that the No. 2 at the Justice Department may not lose his job after all.
"My preference would be to keep him," Trump said at a news conference in New York Wednesday when asked if he planned to fire Rosenstein. "I would certainly prefer not doing it."
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He went on to indicate that he may postpone the meeting in order to avoid "competing" with his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's high-stakes hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday.
"I don't want to do anything that gets in the way," Trump said.
But a potential delay or wholesale cancellation of the Rosenstein meeting goes beyond competing with Kavanaugh. It could be seen as a sign that Trump has opted to follow the a chorus of advice -- from his lawyers to Fox News' Sean Hannity -- not to oust Rosenstein, the man who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
'He was very nice'
Last week's stunning reports of Rosenstein's musings about wearing a wire to surreptitiously record the President and ousting him from office last year immediately raised questions about his job security, but the President appeared unperturbed Wednesday.
"We've had a good talk, he said he never said it, he said he had a lot of respect for me," Trump said, adding that Rosenstein was "very nice" and a "member of the Trump administration."
All week, senior White House officials had predicted Rosenstein would remain in his position until at least the midterm election in November, if not through the end of the year -- a welcome relief for those who have the President's ear and have reminded him of the political migraine that could result if he fired Rosenstein so close to the election.
So far, those close to Trump claim he's been uncharacteristically calm about the situation. When he spoke to Rosenstein on Monday, Trump did not raise his voice -- instead, he was measured and said he would rather talk in person Thursday, a senior official told CNN. Behind the scenes, some had even advised him not to do Thursday's meeting at all.
Overall, the President has been far more preoccupied with the drama surrounding Kavanaugh than with Rosenstein this week.
Yet, at least on Monday, the President also had a back-up plan.
Trump spoke directly with Attorney General Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, about becoming the acting deputy attorney general in Rosenstein's place on Monday morning, and Whitaker began telling people, understanding the job would be his, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
The plan did not go expected, and Whitaker's standing as Rosenstein's successor is an open question at this point, but it illustrates the fragile footing Justice officials find themselves in at the moment.
On Capitol Hill, some of Rosenstein's Republican critics have demanded he appear before Congress to explain his comments about wiretapping and the 25th Amendment, but House Speaker Paul Ryan tamped down the calls from the House Freedom Caucus, saying that it was a matter the President and the deputy attorney general had to work out amongst themselves.
"I think we shouldn't step in the way of that. We should let the President work it out with Rod Rosenstein," Ryan said at a news conference. "I hope they have a good productive conversation and I think that's helpful."
Leaders of the House Freedom Caucus, including Republican Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, have called for a subpoena to force Rosenstein's testimony and met with Ryan behind closed doors Wednesday.
Thus far, House Judiciary Commitee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, has only prepared a subpoena Tuesday evening for the memos authored by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe where the allegations are documented, without readying a subpoena for Rosenstein's testimony.
That didn't satisfy some of Trump's vocal allies in Congress, but their time for another play has dimmed, with Congress leaving town at the end of the week.
"I do not believe that the second in command at DOJ can make the kinds of alleged comments that he made and not come before this committee and this Congress to tell us and the American people to tell us what he said and didn't say," Meadows said, declining to discuss whether he would move forward with articles of impeachment against Rosenstein.