WASHINGTON – U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told President Donald Trump last week that he isn’t a target of any part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or the probe into his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Rosenstein, who brought up the investigations himself, offered the assurance during a meeting with Trump at the White House last Thursday, a development that helped tamp down the president’s desire to remove Rosenstein or Mueller, the people said.
After the meeting, Trump told some of his closest advisers that it’s not the right time to remove either man since he’s not a target of the probes. One person said Trump doesn’t want to take any action that would drag out the investigation.
The change in attitude by the president comes after weeks of attacks on the special counsel and the Justice Department, raising questions about whether he might take drastic steps to shut down the probes.
The shift gives some breathing room for Mueller, as well as Rosenstein, who has been criticized strongly by House Republicans for being slow to comply with requests for classified documents. Last week’s meeting was set up in part to allow Rosenstein to assuage Trump’s frustration with his decisions.
Rosenstein’s message may have been based on a technicality. Trump may not officially be a target, but Mueller hasn’t ruled out making him one at some point in the future, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the unfolding investigation.
“I don’t know what it means. It is a fairly standard part of any investigation — trying to decide whether a person you’re encountering is a witness, a subject or a target,” former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump, said Thursday on CNN when asked what Rosenstein’s assurance to Trump means at this point.
A target is someone about whom an investigation and a grand jury “developed significant evidence — evidence sufficient to charge,” Comey said.
Trump, who still hasn’t ruled out removing Rosenstein and Mueller at some point, signaled his shift in approach to them on Wednesday, responding to a reporter’s question about their fate by saying they are “still here.”
“They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of them for the last three months, four months, five months,” Trump said at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. “And they’re still here. We want to get the investigation over with, done with, put it behind us. And we have to get back to business.”
The expectation that the investigation will wrap up soon was underscored by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’s joined Trump’s personal legal team. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, said in an interview Thursday that he was taking a “very brief” leave of absence from his law firm in an effort to get Mueller “what he needs to wrap it up” and to “try to negotiate a way to get this over with.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on Rosenstein’s meeting with Trump, which was also attended by White House General Counsel Don McGahn, FBI general counsel Dana Boente, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
The moment echoes another conversation early in Trump’s presidency, when he spoke with then-FBI Director Comey.
Back in March 2017, Comey told Trump he wasn’t a target in the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Comey wrote in his new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” that Trump repeatedly asked him to help lift “the cloud” hanging over him by publicly announcing he wasn’t under investigation.
Comey refused to make a public announcement, writing that “the FBI and Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most important that it would create a duty to correct that statement should that status change.”
Ever since FBI agents raided Cohen’s home and office earlier this month, Trump has been egged on by some of his strongest supporters to strike back at Mueller.
Court papers filed after the raid revealed that the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York has been investigating Cohen for months, following a referral from Mueller. That referral was approved by Rosenstein, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In his remarks Wednesday, Trump called the Mueller-led investigation “a hoax” created by Democrats “to soften the blow of a loss.”
“As far as the investigation, nobody has ever been more transparent,” he said during a news conference with visiting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I have instructed the lawyers, ‘Be totally transparent.”‘