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Top official in Trump-Russia probe could be on way out: US media


Washington (AFP)

Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the probe into alleged collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump, was received Monday at the White House as US media reported he was about to resign or be fired.

The departure of Rosenstein -- possibly giving Trump an opportunity to get more of a loyalist as a replacement -- would dramatically rock the probe into whether Russia conspired with Trump's campaign to aid his 2016 shock presidential election victory.

Several media outlets including The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Rosenstein was preparing to be dismissed, following the publication of reports that he had discussed ways to remove Trump over incompetence.

Trump was away in New York at the UN annual assembly and Rosenstein was due to be received by the chief of staff John Kelly.

But it was not immediately clear whether he would be sacked or resign, or even whether the presidency would accept a resignation, the reports said.

- Trump vs Justice Department -

Rosenstein plays a key role in overseeing the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which Trump calls a politically motivated "witch hunt."

In a highly unusual policy for a US president, Trump has repeatedly attacked the Justice Department and the FBI, claiming that they are biased against him.

Just last Friday, Trump referred in a speech to supporters to a "lingering stench" at the Justice Department that he would soon eradicate.

Allies of the president say he is angered and frustrated by Mueller's probe, which has resulted in multiple prosecutions and convictions of people close to Trump -- with the prosecutor's targets inching ever higher up the chain.

The rancor between Trump and his own law enforcement bodies took an extraordinary turn with reports last week that in May 2017 Rosenstein suggested secretly recording Trump for evidence of White House dysfunction.

Rosenstein, who denies the reports, was said to have wanted to gather evidence for use in removing Trump from power under a constitutional amendment for cases when a president is not fit for office.

The New York Times and Washington Post reports were based on secret memos by a former FBI director.

Amid ever deepening paranoia and partisan division in Washington, some speculated the notes were leaked as a trap for Trump -- challenging him to oust the official in charge of the Russia probe.

His presidency is already overshadowed by a book by White House chronicler Bob Woodward that depicts Trump as so chaotic and capricious that aides even swipe controversial orders from his desk before they can be signed.

But others speculated that the story about Rosenstein had been planted to undermine both the deputy attorney general and Mueller, thereby giving Trump an excuse to go on the attack.

Democrat opponents and also many from his own Republican Party have warned Trump not to take any action that could be seen as attempting to weaken or even dismantle the Russia probe.

Many have predicted that Rosenstein would have to go following the hugely embarrassing reports on his supposed plot.

However, with November midterm congressional elections rapidly approaching -- and Trump's Republicans fearing a battering -- analysts say there would be considerable risk for the party if the White House is even seen as trying to interfere in the Russia probe.

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