What seemed at first like a long-awaited opening to get rid of the "lingering stench" at his Justice Department now poses a quandary for President Donald Trump: Would firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein complicate precarious confirmation proceedings for an embattled Supreme Court nominee?
It would, according to Republican allies of the President, who have urged him to hold off on a purge of Justice Department officials until Brett Kavanaugh is safely in place on the high court. For now, Trump appears to have listened, though he has made clear his desire to rid the agency of officials he has deemed disloyal and corrupt.
In the immediate hours after The New York Times reported Friday on Rosenstein's supposedly sarcastic musings about wearing a wire to document chaos in the administration, Trump questioned whether to fire him immediately, people familiar with the conversations said. Some of his staunchest allies seemed to goad him to do it. Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro posted messages on Twitter declaring Rosenstein must swiftly be dismissed.
But in Washington, more cautious voices warned of outcry on Capitol Hill if Trump moved to fire the man who oversees special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. The fallout could muddle efforts to get Kavanaugh confirmed, Trump's allies warned, particularly as some senators are wavering in their support amid the sexual assault claims against the nominee, which the judge has denied. Ingraham — who'd earlier declared on Twitter "He needs to go. Today" — deleted her tweets.
The dynamic reflects the lingering anxiety among White House officials and establishment Republicans over Kavanaugh's prospects in the Senate, where the allegations have thrown a once-certain confirmation into question.
On Saturday, Kavanaugh's accuser, through her lawyers, said she was willing to "provide her first-hand knowledge" of the alleged assault to the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, although the statement from her attorneys didn't agree to a specific date or time. Ultimately, lawyers for Christine Blasey Ford, along with a bipartisan group of committee staff, tentatively agreed on Saturday evening to a Thursday hearing, according to a person briefed on the call and a source familiar with it. The sources said more details would be ironed out on Sunday.
Installing a fifth conservative justice on the Supreme Court -- which would enshrine a conservative majority on the court for a generation -- is viewed as a once-in-a-presidency opportunity for Republicans, many of whom privately say they are willing to overlook Trump's faults if it means fundamentally transforming the federal judiciary. But some Republican senators have warned that firing Rosenstein, or otherwise taking steps seen as short-circuiting Mueller's investigation, would be met with fierce resistance.
A person close to the White House also said any move on Rosenstein could be tempered by Trump's increasing concern about November's midterm elections.
Trump's "initial inclination would be to fire Rosenstein, but he's also very worried about the Senate going in the hands of the Democrats which will make impeachment and other problems for him very significant," the person said. "So in this case, I think he is actually listening."
Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, spelled out his priorities on Twitter: "1. Confirm Kavanaugh. 2. Replace Rosenstein. 3. Hold Congress. 4. Martini."
Meanwhile, one of Trump's most vocal defenders warned in a direct public message that the President's adversaries could be trying to ensnare him in a trap.
"I have a message for the President tonight: Under zero circumstances should the President fire anybody," Hannity said on his Friday broadcast, which aired on television screens aboard Air Force One as Trump flew from a rally in Missouri to his golf resort in New Jersey.
"The President needs to know it is all a setup," Hannity, who had interviewed the President a night earlier in Las Vegas, said gravely. "He needs to know that regardless of whether he steps in or not, and I would argue he should definitely not, the deep state tonight is crumbling from within at this very hour."
There is nothing to indicate the Times' story was a setup; multiple outlets, including CNN, later confirmed that Rosenstein had discussed wearing a "wire" to record conversations with Trump and recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
But Trump was taken with Hannity's argument, and questioned aloud whether the story was a "setup" meant to trigger a response, people familiar with the matter said. He told aides he doesn't want to be manipulated into doing something, even if he believes Rosenstein should eventually go.
Instead, he demanded a firmer denial from the deputy attorney general, a message that was relayed to Rosenstein in person during an evening visit to the West Wing on Friday night.
As Rosenstein was being given his marching orders, Trump was huddling with aides aboard Air Force One determining a path forward. The story, which emerged midday Friday, had been brought to the White House's attention a day earlier, according to people familiar with the matter.
"You've seen what's happened at the FBI. They're all gone. They're all gone. They're all gone," he said to hoots and hollers. "But there's a lingering stench, and we're going to get rid of that too."
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