WASHINGTON - Memos written by Andrew McCabe, then the acting FBI director, say deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein suggested he secretly record his talks with President Donald Trump, and that Rosenstein discussed possibly trying to remove him from office, according to people familiar with the matter.
The account, first reported by The New York Times, paints Rosenstein as so concerned in May 2017 in the wake of Trump's firing of then-FBI director James Comey that he contemplated secretly recording conversations with the president. He also initiated discussions about invoking the 25th amendment, which details how the Cabinet can decide whether a president is no longer able to discharge the duties of the job, one of the McCabe memos said.
McCabe was fired earlier this year, and a grand jury is weighing possible charges against him for allegedly misleading investigators in a leak probe.
McCabe's lawyer, Michael Bromwich, said in a statement that his client "drafted memos to memorialize significant discussions he had with high level officials and preserved them so he would have an accurate, contemporaneous record of those discussions. When he was interviewed by the special counsel more than a year ago, he gave all of his memos - classified and unclassified - to the special counsel's office. A set of those memos remained at the FBI at the time of his departure in late January 2018. He has no knowledge of how any member of the media obtained those memos."
Rosenstein denied the account.
"The New York Times's story is inaccurate and factually incorrect," Rosenstein said. "I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: Based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment."
People familiar with the 2017 discussions - and the memos written about the discussions - offered wildly divergent accounts of what was said and what was meant.
The key meeting took place at a time of high stress and concern within the upper echelons of the Justice Department and the FBI. Comey had just been fired, and McCabe, like many in the FBI, was deeply upset about that action by Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.
Comey's firing also alarmed Justice Department officials, but they had an additional concern. Rosenstein had written a key memo criticizing Comey's handling of the earlier FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for government business. That memo was used by the White House as a central justification for Comey's firing, but many law enforcement officials suspected that was a pretext, and that Rosenstein had been manipulated into providing cover for possible obstruction of justice.
Rosenstein was under tremendous pressure from Congress to show that both he and the entire Justice Department had not caved to political pressure from the White House.
In that setting, senior Justice Department and FBI officials gathered to discuss how to proceed with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible conspiracy with Americans.
While McCabe's memos assert both the recording and 25th amendment conversations occurred at a meeting within days of Comey's firing, another person at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, insisted the recording comment was said in a moment of sarcasm, and that the 25th amendment was not discussed.
That person said the wire comment came in response to McCabe's own pushing for the Justice Department to open an investigation into the president. To that, Rosenstein responded with what this person described as a sarcastic comment along the lines of, "What do you want to do, Andy, wire the president?"
That person insisted the statement was never discussed with any intention of recording a conversation with the president.
Another official at the meeting, then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page, wrote her own memo of the discussion which does not mention any talk of the 25th amendment, according to a second person who was familiar with her account.
A third person familiar with the discussions said McCabe had privately asserted previously that Rosenstein suggested invoking the 25th amendment and the idea of a senior law enforcement officials wearing a wire while talking to Trump.
A key issue now is how the White House will respond to the revelations and disputes, as some high-profile conservatives suggested the new information might be grounds to fire Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's probe.
The president's son Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted: "No one is shocked that these guys would do anything in their power to undermine" the president.
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