SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump promised to drain the swamp at a rally last night. He meant the Department of Justice.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to tell you, we have great people in the Department of Justice. But you had some real bad ones. You've seen what's happened at the FBI. They're all gone. They're all gone. But there's a lingering stench. And we're going to get rid of that, too.
SIMON: This call followed an extraordinary report in The New York Times. The paper says the deputy attorney general discussed wearing a wire to record the president and that he wanted to invoke the 25th Amendment last year. NPR's national justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson, has been following the story. Carrie, thanks for joining us in the studio.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.
SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Well, these are very serious allegations - that Rod Rosenstein wanted to remove President Trump from office. What do you make of this?
JOHNSON: Rod Rosenstein has denied the notion he thought President Trump was so unfit to serve that the 25th Amendment should be triggered. The New York Times says that appears in a contemporaneous memo written by the acting FBI director last year. The paper also says Rosenstein raised wearing a wire to record President Trump, which, by the way, never happened. A former Justice Department official says that was sarcastic humor, not a serious idea. And Rod Rosenstein put out a statement last night, Scott. He said, I never pursued or authorized recording the president. And any suggestion I have ever advocated for the removal of the president is absolutely false. But this story, once again, has plunged the Department of Justice into crisis, which has been the case basically since this president was inaugurated.
SIMON: What do we know, Carrie, about the discussions that were occurring inside the Justice Department last year?
JOHNSON: This was an extraordinary time. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG, was very anxious. This was shortly after the president fired the FBI director Jim Comey in May 2017. Remember, the White House said Rosenstein's criticism of Comey was the basis for that firing. But after Rosenstein pushed back, the president wound up changing his tune. He told NBC the Russia thing was really on his mind when he fired Comey. That's, of course, now the subject of an ongoing investigation by the special counsel in this case. The president also entertained Russian officials inside the Oval Office soon after he fired Comey. And he told them getting rid of the FBI director would relieve a lot of pressure on him. So that made for a strange set of circumstances inside the DOJ.
SIMON: Yeah. You have been speaking with people who know Rod Rosenstein - worked with him, friends of his. What do they tell you?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Rosenstein's old friend Jim Trusty says he's worried about what may be happening here behind the scenes.
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JIM TRUSTY: I do wonder who would put that out there and what the motivations could be. It certainly feeds horribly into a deep-state scenario to suggest that the deputy attorney general is actively, you know, hoping for the overturning of the election and the removal of the president.
JOHNSON: And Scott, people close to this president immediately seized on this New York Times report. The president's son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted no one is shocked these guys would do anything to undermine the president. Fox News host Laura Ingraham advocated for Rosenstein's immediate firing. But some Republicans in Congress suggested they'd haul Rod Rosenstein up for some hearings, rather than demanding he go right away.
SIMON: Hovering above all of this, obviously, is the Russia investigation. Rod Rosenstein supervises the special counsel. If he were to get fired, what happens?
JOHNSON: Well, Democrats fear this story may give the president a way to curtail or even end the Robert Muller special counsel probe. Rosenstein is the one who approves all big steps in the Russia investigation. If he's not there, maybe his replacement will put the leash on these investigators. And the story's coming out at a time when this investigation is really active. Remember, in the last month, the president's former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate. Also, the president's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been meeting with special counsel investigators. And a grand jury here in Washington, D.C., has been hearing from associates of Trump adviser Roger Stone, including one who testified yesterday. Jim Comey, the former FBI director, says the Mueller probe may be in the fourth quarter. The question is whether he'll be able to complete his work.
SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.