The White House is preparing talking points designed to undermine Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's credibility, according to sources familiar with the plan.
The plan calls on President Donald Trump's allies to cast Rosenstein as too conflicted to fairly oversee the Russia investigation.
The talking points are still in their preliminary form, and not yet finalized, people familiar with their preparation said. The White House and the Justice Department declined to comment.
Already, a number of Trump's associates have called for Rosenstein's firing in appearances on television and in public remarks over the past few days, but not all of them did so at the request of the White House.
As special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump encroaches further into the President's inner circle, his allies outside the White House are ramping up their efforts both to defend him and to encourage a tougher stance against a probe they claim has dramatically overstepped its bounds. FBI agents relied on search warrants that had been executed by the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York in conducting the raid. They obtained the warrants after receiving a referral from Mueller's office.
Firing Rosenstein or Mueller himself could inject new turbulence into Trump's presidency. Legal experts, Democrats and some Republicans have said it could prompt a constitutional crisis. It would almost certainly derail policy efforts as Trump works to enact his agenda ahead of congressional elections in November.
Weighing Rosenstein's fate
Efforts to undermine Rosenstein in the media come as the President is weighing whether to fire the top official overseeing the Russia investigation.
Trump is still livid about the raid on his private attorney Michael Cohen -- "He'll be pissed about it until he dies," another source said -- and he and his allies are increasingly convinced that Mueller and Rosenstein have overstepped their bounds.
One area of conflict the White House wants its surrogates to highlight: Rosenstein's role as a key witness to the Comey firing, sources said. Rosenstein wrote the memo justifying Comey's dismissal. It centered on his conduct in investigating Hillary Clinton's use of private email.
In a somewhat illogical pairing, the White House is also looking for Trump's allies to cast Rosenstein and Comey as close colleagues -- even though Rosenstein helped provide the basis for Comey's firing.
The White House is hoping Trump's defenders will use the notion that Comey and Rosenstein are close to argue that Rosenstein is approving an ever-expanding investigation against Trump and his associates as retribution.
"It's payback for the President firing one of his best friends," a source said.
A source close to Rosenstein noted, however, that the two men are not friends.
A White House official said the President has been particularly galled by a recently disclosed memo Rosenstein wrote in August authorizing Mueller to investigate allegations that Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was "colluding with Russian government officials" to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
The President and some of his aides were upset Rosenstein didn't give the White House a heads up about the additional memo, according to a person familiar with the matter. As officials seek to learn what was included in the memo's redactions, they are building a case against Rosenstein that he should have recused himself from the probe in the first place.
That view has been echoed by a key Trump legal defender, Alan Dershowitz, who has insisted Rosenstein cannot oversee an investigation in which he may himself be a witness.
While many of Trump's friends and staffers have discouraged him from firing anyone in the past, that has shifted in the wake of the Cohen raid, even though it was carried out by the Southern District of New York and not Mueller's team.
Nevertheless, multiple Trump allies have agreed with the President's thinking that Mueller has overstepped his mandate and that someone should be held accountable.
Public show of force
The animosity toward Rosenstein that has emerged on Capitol Hill, including from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, could also make the President feel as those he has more cover to fire Rosenstein, a source said.
Trump himself has remained preoccupied with the Russia investigation, even as his administration weighs launching strikes in Syria in response to a chemical gas attack. Twelve minutes before Sean Hannity was set to hit the airwaves on Wednesday, his most powerful regular viewer seemed to know what was in store.
"Big show tonight on @seanhannity!" Trump wrote on Twitter. "9:00 P.M. on @FoxNews."
What followed was a nearly hour-long screed on the swirl of perceived Justice Department offenses against Trump and a preemptive strike against James Comey, the FBI director Trump fired who embarks next week on a book tour.
Thirty minutes into the television program that Trump promoted on Wednesday, attorney Joseph DiGenova -- who nearly joined Trump's legal team before withdrawing because of conflicts -- barked his instructions.
"Rod Rosenstein is so incompetent, compromised and conflicted that he can no longer serve as deputy attorney general, and Jeff Sessions now has an obligation to the President of the United States to fire Rod Rostenstein," he said, his voice raised in anger.
He wasn't alone. Earlier on Fox, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich described Rosenstein as ineffective at keeping Mueller within bounds.
"The fact is Rod Rosenstein has not done his job. He has not supervised Mueller. This whole thing is an absurdity," Gingrich declared on "Fox and Friends," the regular soundtrack of Trump's early mornings. "The fact is, this is a left-wing bureaucracy at Justice. It is anti-Trump. It is anti-Republican."
Across the Atlantic, one of Trump's former campaign aides was espousing the same view during a Wall Street Journal panel in London. Citing, among other things, Rosenstein's authorization of FBI raids on the office and hotel room of Trump's attorney Michael Cohen, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski declared there was cause for dismissal.
"I think any or all of those are justification for firing the deputy attorney general," he said.
And Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, has begun advocating for Rosenstein's firing in conversations with Trump allies and advisers, according to people familiar with his efforts, who also say Bannon is warning that Trump's legal team is woefully outmatched by Mueller's team.
The Washington Post also first reported on Wednesday that Bannon was calling on Trump to fire the White House attorney assigned to the Mueller probe, Ty Cobb. Trump dismissed that suggestion in a tweet on Thursday.
"I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller (Unlike the Clintons!)," Trump wrote. "I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my Special Counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process."
Bannon's campaign hasn't necessarily included direct conversations with Trump himself. But his views reflect a concerted effort by Trump's allies to convince the President that harsher action is necessary to short circuit the Russia probe.
An administration official says all of the outside voices calling for Rosenstein's firing have been compiled and given to the president, though much of the action has come on the airwaves of Fox News, which Trump views regularly.
Trump has considered firing Mueller and Rosenstein at various points over the past year, but has stopped short of taking such drastic steps. He's been advised by Republican lawmakers and other allies that the political fallout of such a move could prove devastating for his agenda.
He's also recalled another firing that proved to have damaging consequences: it was his firing of James Comey last year that resulted in the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
Trump on Thursday pushed back on reports he's considered firing Mueller, including a story this week that he'd threatened to dismiss the special counsel in December.
"If I wanted to fire Robert Mueller in December, as reported by the Failing New York Times, I would have fired him. Just more Fake News from a biased newspaper!" he wrote.
That pushback aside, Trump continues to consider taking action to short-circuit the Russia probe, including firing Rosenstein, CNN has reported. Officials say if Trump acts, Rosenstein is his most likely target, but it's unclear whether even such a dramatic firing like this would be enough to satisfy the President.
Lawmakers have warned such a step could prove politically disastrous, though the topic did not arise during a Wednesday dinner with top Republican leaders, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.
On Thursday, a top Republican took his warnings against firing Mueller public.
"Anyone advising the President -- in public or over the airwaves -- to fire Bob Mueller does not have the President or the nation's best interest at heart," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote on Twitter. "Full stop."
CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.
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