It was a rough morning for the Justice Department.
Shortly before 11 a.m., multiple reports emerged that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein–who oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe–was on his way out. A source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that he was headed to the White House, where he expected to be fired.
A New York Times story published on Friday precipitated the crisis, reporting that the deputy attorney general talked about covertly recording President Donald Trump and having his cabinet members team up to oust him. Rosenstein said the report was wrong. A Justice Department source told The Daily Beast that the mood soured over the weekend, as the Times stood by its story and some Rosenstein allies privately conceded that he made the remarks (though sarcastically).
As Rosenstein made the five-block trek to 1600 Pennsylvania on Monday morning, most Justice Department officials were in the dark–just as out-of-the-loop as anyone on their boss’s future. And they braced for chaos.
But Rosenstein’s White House visit, it appears, was less dramatic than anticipated. Sources confirmed to The Daily Beast that after an initial meeting, Rosenstein went to a second meeting on national security, where he stood in for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
By 1 p.m., he was back at Justice Department headquarters–still the deputy attorney general, despite everything.
But that may not last.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Rosenstein “had an extended conversation” with the president about “the recent news stories,” and that the two men would talk more on Thursday when Trump returns from the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
On that same day, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about allegations of sexual assault she has made against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Rosenstein’s potential ouster from the Justice Department–which has generated noisy speculation in Washington legal circles for months–would be momentous. He supervises Mueller’s probe into potential coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential race, an inquiry that Trump regularly calls a “witch hunt.”
Solicitor General Noel Francisco, a conservative litigator with no prosecutorial experience, is next in line to take control of the probe. But many expect he would recuse himself since his old law firm, Jones Day, represents the Trump campaign. Francisco has already removed himself from several matters before the Supreme Court that the firm is litigating.
If Francisco stepped aside, then Steve Engel–who heads the Department’s elite and secretive Office of Legal Counsel–would likely step in to oversee Mueller. Engel served in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration and clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, who stepped down from his post in December amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Regardless, Hill Democrats say they would view any White House effort to fire and replace Rosenstein as an attack on the Mueller probe.
And for Justice Department officials, the dust is far from settled.
“This has a real doomsday feel, is all I can say,” one told The Daily Beast.