AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Rod Rosenstein is still the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department despite conflicting reports about his fate earlier today. TV cameras recorded him leaving his home for a meeting at the White House. A short while later, press secretary Sarah Sanders announced President Trump would meet Thursday with Rosenstein. The job security of the lawyer who oversees the special counsel investigation is far from clear. NPR national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to help us sort it out. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So the day started with this report in the news outlet Axios that Rosenstein, the second in command at the Justice Department, had offered his resignation. How did things reach that point?
JOHNSON: Well, this chaos all began with an extraordinary report in The New York Times last week that Rod Rosenstein talked about wearing a wire to record the president last year and that he started a conversation about invoking the 25th Amendment on the basis that Donald Trump was not fit to serve. Now, Rosenstein denied ever approving or taking steps to record Trump, and he says he never advocated pushing Trump out of office.
But the president, of course, reacted pretty strongly, telling a crowd over the weekend it was time to remove the lingering stench from the Justice Department. And Trump told Geraldo Rivera's radio show that he would make a determination about what to do next. Some Republicans in Congress are warning the White House not to make big changes at the Justice Department until after the November elections.
CORNISH: In the meantime, where do things stand for Rosenstein right now?
JOHNSON: Well, a source close to Rod Rosenstein tells me he did not offer to resign. He did talk with the White House chief of staff John Kelly over the weekend, and they may have discussed some terms. It's not clear what those were in terms of timing or promises about insulating the Russia investigation or whatnot. In any event, things were left up in the air this weekend. And then Rod Rosenstein was seen headed to the White House today. People close to him told me he expected to be fired there, but that did not happen. Rod Rosenstein survives for at least another few days in this hothouse environment.
CORNISH: Now, this sent all of kind of political Washington into overdrive, right? What are some of the things that people are saying?
JOHNSON: Well, Democrats in Congress expressed a lot of alarm. They're warning the special counsel probe, which Rosenstein supervises, could be in jeopardy. They're worried that whoever replaces the deputy attorney general could block new criminal charges or other steps in that investigation of Russian election interference. And there were some new calls today to pass legislation to try to protect the special counsel Robert Mueller from Rod Rosenstein's friends. There was a mixed reaction.
He's been in a state of crisis since he took this job last year. It's already the hardest job in the Justice Department. And lawyers for President Trump seized on the news that Rosenstein might be out. Attorney Jay Sekulow says if Rosenstein goes, it's time for this whole special counsel investigation to get a timeout.
CORNISH: Given all that you've just said, what is the succession plan if Rosenstein were to be fired?
JOHNSON: Audie, things could change here. I feel like I'm saying that caveat all the time, as they do several times a day, if not several times an hour in Washington. Bear with me - this gets a little knotty. One person is telling me the former Iowa U.S. attorney, Matt Whitaker, could become the acting deputy attorney general if Rosenstein goes. Whitaker's currently the chief of staff to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
As for who would supervise the special counsel, this person says it would likely be the solicitor general, Noel Francisco. Noel Francisco has been on the record in the past of being kind of leery about special counsels or special prosecutors, but he's also pretty close to Rod Rosenstein.
If he were to step aside - Noel Francisco - for any reason, that would put Steve Engel, who runs the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, next in line to oversee the Russia investigation. Steve Engel is a DOJ veteran, worked in the George W. Bush administration. And he's a former Supreme Court clerk. But he doesn't have experience as a prosecutor, and that experience could really come in handy supervising the most important criminal investigation at the Justice Department in the last generation or two.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson with that update. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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