Robert Costa joined me this morning and expanded on the blockbuster story this morning:
HH: I’m joined by the Washington Post, Robert Costa, who along with Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Sari Horwitz have the story of the day. Headline: Inside Trump’s Anger and Impatience – And His Sudden Desire To Fire Comey. This is Pulitzer-level reporting, Robert. Welcome. You have in here a new detail which could change everything for me, personally. Did Rob Rosenstein threaten to resign on Tuesday night?
RC: He did. He did. What happened was on Monday, the President said to Rosenstein and Sessions as they were meeting in the Oval Office, I want you to put this critique you’re telling me about of the FBI, the, Rosenstein had a criticism of Comey’s leadership. He said put it in writing. Put it in writing. They did, and they delivered those letters, the memorandum to the President on Tuesday, and boom, the President moved. The decision was made. So in essence, they had this meeting on Monday that prompted the decision that Trump really had already made in his head.
HH: So it’s a last straw sort of thing, but why did Rod Rosenstein threaten to resign? And on how many sources does that reporting hang?
RC: That hangs on some significant sourcing. It’s delicate, but it’s solid reporting. What happened is, Hugh, Rosenstein believed that, based on our reporting, and Sari Horwitz in particular, Rosenstein believed that he was supposed to do a review of the FBI, which he did over the last few weeks to review the FBI and its leadership there. And he presented that in a conversation with the Attorney General and the President. He did not think that his review of the FBI would then become the impetus for the firing, because he also knew, based on our reporting, people close to him and others, he also knew that the President was moving in this direction. So he was unhappy with the way this unfolded with the White House pinning his memorandum as the reason for a decision that Rosenstein and others in the White House knew the President had in effect already made.
HH: Now a technical question. I have been saying Rosenstein forever, and yesterday, there were a thousand people saying Rosenstein. Are you quite certain it’s Rosenstein?
RC: I’ve been told it’s Rosenstein, but it could be Rosenstein now that you say it.
HH: You know, I’ve never heard him pronounce it. And the guy who knows how he wants it pronounced is that guy. Okay, so it’s going to continue until he comes out and actually gives us the most important thing, is which is how to pronounce your name. So in the Rosenstein memo, which I read repeatedly on Tuesday night, didn’t watch television, but I’m a former Department of Justice guy, and I understand tension between main Justice and the Hoover Building. And in every city in the United States, there’s tension between the special agent in charge and his team and the United States Attorney and his or her team in that area. I would like to know do you believe that Rosenstein wanted Comey gone? It sure, when you read this thing, and it says at the end we’re not going to be able to rebuild the FBI until we have new leadership. I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t bring up the full document.
RC: That’s right.
HH: What did he want?
RC: Well, he never explicitly says replace Comey, but he leans into that, of courses, in the memo. As you correctly state, he says the FBI could use new leadership if it wants to revamp. The context for this, Hugh, based on our reporting, is that Sessions and Rosenstein had growing concerns about the FBI, about Comey’s conduct, about the way Comey testified about the morale at the Bureau. All that is accurate. But at the same time, Rosenstein did not see this, his view of the FBI as the reason for the administration to move forward. He was providing a candid assessment of the FBI as an institution to the President rather than just some kind of excuse to get rid of Comey.
HH: Yeah, it’s a damning…
RC: But I guess they’re similar. They overlap, of course, which makes it sort of complicated.
HH: Yeah, that’s it. I keep telling people to keep the streams, don’t let the streams cross, and I’m focusing in on the Rosenstein memo right now. It concludes, we should reject the departure and return to the tradition. And that means reject the way Comey has been acting, and return to the tradition of the Department of Justice to decide. And then the critical last paragraph, “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 action.” Now look, Robert, that is, to me, pretty damn clear cut. He’s got to go. I mean, we’ve got 2,000 open terror investigations right now, according to Director Comey under oath in the Senate last week. Is Rosenstein objecting to this being read as a recommendation that the FBI director be fired?
RC: I don’t think he, I have not heard that he’s objected to that. I think your point is a valid one. He has written explicitly in a memorandum his position. What we’re told from our sources is that his frustration is because he, as anyone in that position is, is very plugged in with Sessions, very plugged in with what the White House and the President are thinking. He knew as well as anyone knew that in spite of him having this position on the FBI, he knew the President for weeks has been raging about Comey and wanted to move on Comey. And then when we was very unhappy with his reputation being used as the reason for the White House taking this action when he knows, based on our reporting, and others close to him know, that the White House was always moving in this direction. He just thought his credibility was being inappropriately handled. But of course, you could make the argument, as you have, that because of this memorandum, he did take the position.
HH: You see, it’s like, if I can use a basketball analogy, you need all five players for the Cavs to dominate everyone. But you give LeBron the ball the most, and that’s who you talk about in the post-game write up. They all won, right? They all scored points. And I thought your reporting is magnificent today in that I was unaware of this growing discontent until your story this morning. When, how did the President keep that under wraps for the last two weeks? That’s kind of hard to conceal.
RC: Well, that’s a good, I have some good reporting on that.
RC: So I was as surprised as you, Hugh, because I haven’t been picking up hints of this all the time. And Bannon, Priebus, Pence, Kushner weren’t really fully looped in until Monday morning. The President had been at Bedminsters, his golf course in New Jersey, and he had been, this is a thing to remember about the timeline here. For weeks, the President has only truly been talking candidly about Comey and his decision to probably get rid of him with two people – Attorney General Sessions and White House Counsel Don McGahn. And that’s why this thing was kept under wraps so much, because even Priebus and Bannon weren’t really in the loop, because it was a private thing that Sessions and McGahn were going over with the President on how he could move forward if he really pulled the trigger.
HH: Well, that is, that is fascinating, because that makes more sense now, because you and other people have great sources. But for this story to come out today is really quite remarkable, because there hasn’t been a whiff of this discontent. And it does change, but it doesn’t alter my bottom line. I trust Rod Rosenstein based upon serving eight years as Obama to reflect the deeply institutionalized belief at main Justice and the United States Attorney’s office that the FBI director and FBI agents don’t decide who gets prosecuted, that in fact given Loretta Lynch’s recusal, Sally Yates should have made the decision, uncomfortable though it might have been. Comey usurped it, and I was taken out to lunch, I write this in the Washington Post today, by an old hand to an old famous Washington place for a cigar lunch where this individual told me it’s remarkable, it’s never happened for an FBI director to do what Comey did in July. Now I didn’t like the decision, but what Rosenstein’s complaining about isn’t the actual decision so much as that he made it.
RC: That’s correct.
HH: So who did Rosenstein threaten to resign to?
RC: Can’t get into that. Don’t have full reporting on that. It’s a complicated situation, still unfolding, still trying to piece together exactly the turn of events here. But what I do know is Rosenstein meets with the President Monday, has a verbal conversation. The President says well, you think this about the FBI, put it into writing. And Rosenstein and Sessions say okay, we’ll do that. They get the letters to the President Tuesday. Then the White House kicks into gear saying because of this Rosenstein memo, the President decided to make this decision. And then Rosenstein in his orbit starts saying well, wait a minute, wait a minute, this is not exactly how it went down in our eyes. It wasn’t because we went to the President and said this must happen. The President was leaning in this direction, had already made the decision before the meeting on Monday.
HH: Any, and last question, Robert, I said last night on Meet the Press, and maybe I’ll see you over at Nebraska Avenue today, that the Rod Rosenstein testimony is going to be much more interesting than any James Comey testimony. Comey doesn’t know what was going on. Rosenstein knows everything that’s going on, and Jeff Sessions will know some of what’s going on, but he’s recused from the Russia investigation. Rosenstein’s in charge of it. When does Rosenstein next appear on the Hill for any committee?
RC: Well, I’ll have to ask Richard Burr, chairman of Intel or the Oversight chairman. He’s going to get to the Hill, because McGahn, Sessions, and Rosenstein and the President, those are the four people who really know what happened here.
HH: That is, that is great reporting as always, Robert Costa, thank you. Thank you very, very much.
RC: Thanks, Hugh.
HH: Terrific story. Go and read it, America. Follow Costa, @CostaReports.
End of interview.