A debate with major implications has broken out over whether Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was being sarcastic when, in the spring of 2017, he reportedly talked about covertly recording President Donald Trump.
A former career Justice Department official who was in the room when the topic arose told The Daily Beast he believes the deputy attorney general was being sarcastic. But another person in the room at the time has indicated she took it seriously.
Former FBI lawyer Lisa Page was present for Rosenstein's comments on secret recordings and did not believe he was joking or being sarcastic, according to two people familiar with the events in question. A spokesperson for Page declined to comment for this story.
The former official who was also in the room for the meeting Page attended told The Daily Beast he did not think Rosenstein was being serious when he made the comment.
“Never for one second did I think he was seriously suggesting that anybody do that,” that person said. He added that, to his knowledge, there was no further discussion or action on recording the president—reinforcing his assessment that Rosenstein wasn’t being serious.
The question of whether or not Rosenstein was serious when he made those comments has generated uproar in Washington. Rosenstein, meanwhile, has publicly disputed the veracity of a New York Times story reporting that he discussed covertly recording the president and using the 25th amendment to oust him.
“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.
Rosenstein attended meetings on May 16, 2017, where he reportedly discussed the 25th amendment and taping the president, the Times reported. Page attended one of the meetings and wrote a memo about it, multiple outlets have reported. Page, who left the FBI after being embroiled in a scandal involving sending text messages critical of Trump, did not think Rosenstein’s comments about covertly taping the president were in jest, the two sources told The Daily Beast.
Page’s assessment differs from the assessments of unnamed Justice Department officials cited in reports in The Washington Post and NBC News, as well as the assessment of the meeting attendee who spoke to The Daily Beast. Those outlets reported that people who heard Rosenstein’s comments say he was joking. The New York Times’ initial story also cited an unnamed source, referred to them by the Justice Department and with firsthand knowledge, who said Rosenstein was being sarcastic when he made the remark about recording the president.
If Rosenstein truly meant that Justice Department officials should covertly record the president, the White House would view it as an extraordinary act of insubordination and, possibly, grounds for Rosenstein’s firing. If, however, Rosenstein wasn’t being serious, then the comment would be forgivable in some quarters.
Because of the high stakes, the question of Rosenstein’s intention regarding the comments has generated furious debate. The New York Times’ deputy managing editor, Matt Purdy, released a statement defending the paper’s characterization of Rosenstein’s remarks as serious (a characterization Page shared, according to The Daily Beast’s sources).
“Just because you don’t like the facts, don’t comfort yourself by dismissing the story as fake or credulous reporting,” Purdy said. “Mike Schmidt and Adam Goldman have been part of breaking some of the biggest stories of the Trump era and this story is based on months of reporting. The DOJ claim that Rosenstein was sarcastic when he suggested he wear a wire on Trump is not supported by our reporting or others. If you actually read them, the follow stories by [The Washington Post], ABC News and CNN support our story, not debunk it. It is the responsibility of The Times and the rest of the media to report the facts, however comforting or discomforting.”
Some conservatives, meanwhile, have telegraphed skepticism about The New York Times reporting. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and close ally of the White House, released a statement about the story noting that it was based on unnamed sources, “far from a guarantee of veracity.”
“[U]ntil concrete evidence emerges, these accusations remain salacious and unverified, and should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism,” Gaetz continued, calling on the House Judiciary Committee to question Rosenstein and other meeting attendees about the matter.
And Fox News host Sean Hannity said on his show Friday night that the new reporting was part of a Deep State effort to goad the president into making high-profile firings.
“The president needs to know it is all a setup,” he said. “He needs to know that regardless of whether he steps in or not, and I would argue he should definitely not, the Deep State tonight is crumbling from within at this very hour.”
For some, the story of Rosenstein’s remarks is evidence of trouble, regardless of his intent.
“In normal times, the deputy attorney general would not be joking about the 25th amendment,” said David Rivkin, a former Justice Department official under two Republican administrations. “In normal times, nobody would take it seriously enough to remember.”