Editorial: Rosenstein may go, but probe must go on

The Detroit News

Donald Trump is in an impossible situation in weighing what to do about credible reports that his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had openly fantasized about removing the president from office.

As reported by the New York Times, Rosenstein told FBI staffers that he had considered wearing a wire to catch the president in an impeachment trap, and speculated on rallying cabinet support for invoking the 25th Amendment, which provides the framework for unseating a president for cause.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during the Bureau of Justice Assistance's rollout for Fentanyl: The Real Deal Training Video, in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.

Rosenstein first denied, sort of, that he had made the comments. Later, the Justice Department said he was just joking.

It's understandable that an administration besieged with internal threats would not find such jokes funny.

A president doesn't have the right to expect blind loyalty from his appointees, particularly if he's acting against the interests of the country. But he should have the confidence that they are not trying to undermine his administration from within.

Trump is to meet with Rosenstein Thursday, at which time his fate should be decided.

If the president isn't convinced Rosenstein was engaged in innocent horseplay with colleagues, many of whom -- including fired Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe -- face their own allegations of trying to derail Trump, the deputy attorney general should go. 

But as with everything else involving this administration, that seemingly easy decision carries complicated consequences.

Rosenstein took over responsibility for the Russian collusion probe when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. That makes him, in effect, the boss of Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor.

Rosenstein's firing will be spun as a backdoor attempt by Trump to end the Mueller investigation, and therefore obstruction of justice. That's exactly the charge Democrats have been trying to substantiate in building an impeachment case against Trump.

Should he decide to give Rosenstein the boot, Trump must at the same time commit to allowing Mueller to complete his probe. 

If he short circuits the investigation after firing Rosenstein, the public will never believe the two moves were not connected. No matter who replaces Rosenstein, Trump will be stuck with Mueller until the prosecutor decides he's done.

If Rosenstein somehow survives this embarrassing revelation of anti-Trump sentiments, the "stench" the president says remains in the Justice Department will continue to linger.

That works against reestablishing the trust in the department and its agency that has eroded due to the exposure of bias harbored by many of its top officials.

Trump might be forgiven for firing an appointee who is working against him. But he'll get no pass if he follows Rosenstein's dismissal with a suspension of the Mueller investigation.