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Rod Rosenstein, Justice Department official overseeing Russia investigation, expected to leave post

Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein testifies about the Russia investigation during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 13, 2017.
(Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, the senior Justice Department official supervising the investigation into Russian election meddling and its possible ties to President Trump’s inner circle, expects to be fired on Monday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

He was heading to the White House for a meeting on Monday morning, amid conflicting accounts on whether he had offered to resign or would simply be dismissed.

Rosenstein, the top deputy to Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, has been a target of persistent attacks from congressional Republicans over his role in overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.

The pressure increased following media reports on Friday that Rosenstein suggested secretly recording the president or removing him from office using the 25th Amendment, steps that were discussed after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director in May 2017.

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The 25th Amendment allows the vice president and a majority of cabinet officers to declare a president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” starting a process that would ultimately require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

Rosenstein, a Republican and career federal prosecutor who served in Baltimore before being nominated by Trump to serve as the Justice Department’s number two official, denied the reports last week.

“I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false,” he said in a statement.

However, the reports appeared to have eroded Rosenstein’s standing in the administration.

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By itself, Rosenstein’s departure would not derail Mueller’s high-stakes investigation, and the prosecutors and FBI agents who worked for Mueller can continue their work. But Rosenstein’s replacement could try to constrain the probe or even shut it down by declaring that Mueller has overstepped his authority.

Naming a more compliant deputy attorney general to supervise Mueller — and his budget — could affect the reach and the focus of the special counsel’s probe.

For now, Rosenstein’s authority passes to the next most senior Justice Department official confirmed by the Senate, Noel J. Francisco, the solicitor general, who was confirmed last September by a vote of 50-47.

Francisco served under President George W. Bush, first in the White House and then in the Justice Department, from 2001 to 2005. He then joined Jones Day, a prominent law firm based in Washington and headed their government regulation practice before Trump chose him last year.

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Rosenstein and Mueller, a widely respected former FBI director, have faced Trump’s ire for what the president has called a “corrupt Russia investigation” and a “rigged witch hunt” driven by partisan politics. In a July 11 tweet, he called it “perhaps the most tainted and corrupt case EVER!”

Both Mueller and Rosenstein are Republicans, but Trump has repeatedly accused prosecutors and FBI agents working for them of supporting Democrats or harboring anti-Trump grudges that, in his telling, should disqualify them from investigating him. Democrats just as loudly urged Rosenstein to rebuff any political interference from the president.

Rosenstein served as U.S. attorney in Maryland for 12 years before Trump named him deputy attorney general in early 2017, applauding his focus on violent crime. He was confirmed in the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Rosenstein assumed oversight of the Russia investigation after Sessions recused himself in March 2017 following reports that he failed to tell Congress about his conversations with a Russian diplomat in 2016, when he was a senior advisor to Trump. After Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia investigation in May 2017.

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Mueller’s team was tasked with determing whether Trump or any of his aides illegally assisted a Russian operation to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by releasing stolen emails or manipulating public opinion with a blizzard of misleading posts on social media.

The investigation has since expanded to include questions about whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to influence the investigation.

So far, Mueller’s team has obtained criminal charges against 32 people, although no Americans have been charged with conspiring with Russians.

Four defendants have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, former campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopolous and former deputy campaign chairman Richard Gates, who also admitted to a charge of conspiracy.

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Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of tax evasion and bank fraud in August after a trial in Alexandria, Va. He later cut a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate to avoid a second trial in Washington.

In addition, 25 Russians were indicted for their alleged role in Moscow’s covert campaign to boost Trump in the presidential election but are outside the reach of U.S. courts.

Rosenstein had staunchly defended Mueller’s work, telling Congress in December that the special counsel was handling the sensitive case “appropriately.” He also vowed to resist an improper order to fire him.

Trump reportedly sought to fire Mueller in mid-2017, backing down when White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to quit rather than relay the president’s demand to the Justice Department.

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Legislation meant to insulate the special counsel from White House interference has languished in Congress. But Democrats and some Republicans have urged Trump to allow Mueller, who led the FBI under presidents from both parties from 2001 to 2013, to finish his investigation.

Rosenstein had little public profile until May 2017, when Trump asked him and Sessions to lay out a case for firing Comey, who was heading the Russia investigation at that time.

In a lengthy letter, Rosenstein sharply criticized Comey for his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of State. The White House initially cited the letter to explain why Trump had abruptly dismissed Comey.

Comey had angered both sides during the 2016 campaign — first by announcing in July that Clinton had not violated the law, as Trump and her other critics claimed, and then by informing Congress 11 days before the November election that the FBI was examining additional emails related to the Clinton investigation found on another computer.

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Like the previous probe, it found no evidence that Clinton had broken the law. But Clinton later blamed Comey’s headline-grabbing announcement for helping to tip the election to Trump.

Trump later said he had already decided to fire Comey before asking for Rosenstein’s letter, citing his displeasure with “this Russia thing.” That put Rosenstein into an untenable position and raised questions about whether Trump was improperly trying to shut down or influence a federal investigation.

Days later, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel, a decision that infuriated the president because it ensured the wide-ranging investigation would continue to cast a cloud over the White House.

Rosenstein also drew fire at the White House when he approved a raid that targeted Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer in New York.

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In April, FBI agents hauled away tax records, business documents and other material from Cohen’s Manhattan apartment, law office and a hotel room. A federal judge approved the search warrants after Rosenstein signed off on Mueller referring evidence of a possible crime to the U.S. attorney in New York.

Cohen has since pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax evasion and campaign finance violations. He told the court that Trump directed him, shortly before the election, to make hush money payments to two women who said they had slept with him years ago.

Follow live coverage of the Trump administration on Essential Washington »

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

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