Top Russia probe official's future in doubt ahead of Trump meeting
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Donald Trump said Monday he will meet with his deputy attorney general to seek "transparency" over reports Rod Rosenstein suggested removing him from office, amid speculation that the official who oversees the Russia probe is about to be fired.
Rosenstein's job has looked untenable since bombshell reports appeared last week, but a decision on his fate was apparently pushed back to Thursday, when the White House said the president would talk face-to-face with his Justice Department number two.
Speaking from the annual United Nations General Assembly, Trump confirmed he had spoken with Rosenstein and that they would continue their conversation upon his return to Washington.
"We'll be meeting at the White House and we will be determining what's going on. We want to have transparency. We want to have openness. And I look forward to meeting with Rod at that time," Trump said.
As deputy attorney general, Rosenstein plays a key role in overseeing the high-powered investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which Trump calls a politically motivated "witch hunt."
His departure -- which would give the president an opportunity to replace him with a loyalist -- would dramatically rock the probe into whether Russia conspired with Trump's campaign to aid his 2016 shock presidential election victory.
Rosenstein was received early Monday for a meeting at the White House by the chief of staff, John Kelly, with US media initially reporting that this might be the moment when he stepped down or was forced aside.
A statement subsequently issued by the White House neither confirmed nor put to rest the rumors, saying only that Rosensenstein and Trump had an "extended conversation to discuss the recent news stories."
Those reports said Rosenstein suggested secretly recording Trump for evidence of White House dysfunction.
The White House said the two would meet Thursday, at Rosenstein's request.
Even prior to last week's hugely embarrassing reports -- which Rosenstein denies -- Trump had frequently criticized him.
Trump vs Justice Department
In a highly unusual policy for a US president, Trump regularly attacks the Justice Department and the FBI, claiming that they are biased against him in the Russia probe.
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 last week with reports that Rosenstein suggested gathering evidence for use in removing Trump from power under a constitutional amendment for cases when a president is unfit 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.
Democratic 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 as a result of the reports on his supposed plot.
But if this were followed by an attempt to get the new deputy attorney general to fire Mueller, that would be a red line for many in Congress.
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 investigation.