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Trump's Cease-Fire with Rosenstein Is Bad News for Jeff Sessions

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When news broke at the end of last month that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had offered White House Chief of Staff John Kelly his resignation, Washington was thrown into a tailspin. After hours of conflicting reports, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shut down speculation with a statement confirming that Rosenstein remained the No. 2 official at the Justice Department. And yet, following a New York Times report that Rosenstein had suggested secretly recording Donald Trump and invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office, his future at the D.O.J. remained an open question. But on Monday, Trump finally quashed speculation that Rosenstein was a dead man walking. “No, I don’t,” Trump told reporters when asked whether he had plans to fire Rosenstein, who is accompanying him on a trip to Orlando, Florida.

Trump’s denial is certain to assuage fears among allies of Rosenstein, who is viewed as a key figure standing between the president and special counsel Robert Mueller. But good news for Rosenstein could be bad news for his boss, Jeff Sessions. Since Mueller’s appointment in spring 2017, Trump and his allies have alternately targeted either Sessions or Rosenstein, the pendulum swinging from one to the other depending on things like the president’s mood, and the day’s news. As rumors of Rosenstein’s ouster swirled last month, Sessions expressed relief that, at least for the time being, his deputy was the one under fire. “It is good to be home,” he told an audience in his home state of Alabama. “Thank you so much. That is a warm welcome, and I appreciate it. It’ll make my day, and, who knows, I may need this today—going back to Washington, you never know what’s going to happen next in the capital city. That’s for sure.”

Trump himself has likewise oscillated between blaming Rosenstein for the probe’s expansion, and blaming Sessions. But ultimately, as my colleague Chris Smith explained, he only needs to get rid of one. The firing of Rosenstein, who took over the Mueller probe when Sessions recused himself last year, would be interpreted as a clear assault on the D.O.J. investigation, and the pushback would likely be immense. Indeed, the muted reactions from some of Rosenstein’s harshest critics to rumors of his firing suggested that even Trump allies realize the political cost may be too high.

Firing Sessions, on the other hand, may not be viewed as a targeted strike against Mueller—after all, the A.G. recused himself from the probe early on. And it would likely carry the same benefits as firing Rosenstein, without the toxic optics: Trump could simply appoint a new attorney general who wouldn’t need to recuse themselves, and who, if confirmed by the Senate, may prove perfectly willing to dismantle Mueller’s probe. It is important, too, that Trump’s frustrations with Sessions appear to be much more personal in nature than those he has with Rosenstein. “He was the first senator that endorsed me,” the president lamented to reporters last month. “I’m very disappointed in Jeff. Very disappointed.” If Trump can only get rid of one Justice Department higher-up, it is safe to assume he’d rather oust Sessions.

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