With rumors swirling that President Trump could soon fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, key Democrats this week began putting together an emergency action plan.
Step one: Don’t call for impeachment.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, told a group of Democratic colleagues on Wednesday that they should adhere to a one- or two-day cooling-off period if Trump fires Rosenstein, according to three congressional sources. Rosenstein met Thursday with Trump amid reports that the White House is preparing an effort to undermine the deputy attorney general’s credibility.
“The first 24 to 48 hours, if and when that happens, we should stay calm; we should do our best to reach out across the aisle and talk to our colleagues and say, ‘Seriously, we cannot allow this to happen.’ Just don’t go immediately to DEFCON-1,” said a member of Congress who attended the meeting but asked for anonymity to discuss it candidly. “We should not say anything—let the dust settle for a minute. What I took from it is it’s better to build a coalition across the aisle than just to come out guns a-blazing saying, ‘We’ve got to impeach him now.’”
The meeting with the moderate New Democrat Coalition was called to discuss pending legislation to reform the Dodd-Frank banking law. But the issue of Rosenstein was “weighing heavy on [Warner’s] mind,” according to the member of Congress.
“There are people in our party who, from before he was sworn in, were talking about impeachment,” the member continued. “If this happens, we cannot be the crazy people running around. If we want to take back the House, we have to show that we can govern like adults, and if we start banging the drum saying, ‘Impeach, impeach,’ before we even know Exhibit A, forget about it.”
A second House Democrat who was briefed on the meeting said that Warner believed the president is going to imminently fire Rosenstein, and, “in effect,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller, perhaps on Friday.
In an interview with National Journal on Thursday, Warner said, “I’m not going to comment on meetings I had with other members.”
When asked if he had suggested in any way that Democrats should prepare for the possibility of Rosenstein’s firing, Warner replied, “All I can say is this has been an unusual week of tweets from this president.”
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama.” He added, “Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!” The day before, he tweeted, “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”
But on Thursday, he took a different tack. He tweeted, “I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!).” He also referred to a recent New York Times article reporting that the president sought to fire Mueller in December, for what is known to be at least the second time that year.
“If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him,” he tweeted. “Just more Fake News from a biased newspaper!”
In the interview, Warner said, "The president's tweets said today nothing is going to happen."
“So we’ll see,” he added.
Warner’s message to pump the brakes on the impeachment talk may have come too late. In January, 66 House Democrats, more than a third of the caucus, voted to impeach Trump following disparaging comments he made about admitting into the country people from “shithole” countries in Africa.
That history, and growing pressure from the liberal base—including activist billionaire Tom Steyer—would make it hard for many Democrats to keep quiet, even for a day or two, if Trump fires Rosenstein, noted a third House Democrat.
Warner is not the only Democrat considering the possibility. Top House Democratic leaders also met on Wednesday evening to discuss a game plan should the firing happen. Leaders came to the conclusion that talking about impeachment would be unproductive because it would turn away Republicans. Instead, they think they should focus on protecting Mueller.
“Some people are going to [talk about impeachment]," said a House Democratic leadership source. "We have to stay focused on Mueller—protection, a constitutional crisis, and the need for Mueller to have an unhindered investigation.”
In a preview of their message, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said at her weekly press conference on Thursday that Trump has “dangerously escalated his threats against the special counsel,” calling it “a new low, even for President Trump,” but stopping short of talking about impeachment.
“If the president fires Special Counsel Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, it will ignite a constitutional crisis. It would declare that President Trump believes his administration and his campaign are completely above the law,” she said. “The special counsel must be allowed to follow the facts unhindered.”
This week, a bipartisan group of four senators—Chris Coons of Delaware, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina—introduced a bill to give another layer of protection to the Mueller probe, to ensure that the special counsel can be fired only “for good cause” by a senior DOJ official. The bill will be considered before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks, but it will run into opposition from Republicans who have constitutional concerns with it, and who also note the president is unlikely to sign it. Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee have introduced companion legislation.
“I think that it would be a matter of grave concern to a great many Americans and a grave constitutional insult for the president to interfere in the ongoing investigation by firing either Rod Rosenstein or Bob Mueller,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. “Those prospects have increased based on things that the president has said recently, and based on his nearly frantic reaction to the execution of the search warrant at Michael Cohen’s various premises.”
The uncertainty about Trump’s plans has set members of Congress—and their staffs—on edge.
One Senate Democratic aide said that his boss had emailed the office staff as the senator left Washington on Thursday, “instructing them to set in place a plan for the weekend based on a rumor he heard that a move against Rosenstein or Mueller will happen this weekend.”