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By Greg Stohr and Chris Strohm
WASHINGTON — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, has verbally resigned to White House chief of staff John Kelly, according to one person familiar with the matter.
The resignation was delivered to Kelly late last week, but it's unclear whether Rosenstein is planning to follow through with a formal resignation, the person said. A second person said that Rosenstein isn't expected to be in the job after Monday.
The move comes after reports that Rosenstein suggested to colleagues last year that he would secretly record conversations with President Donald Trump.
Rosenstein was heading to the White House late Monday morning amid media reports that he is expecting to be fired.
A person who was present at the meeting said he was joking, but The New York Times, which first reported the incident on Friday, cited secondhand accounts indicating Rosenstein was serious about the proposal. The Times said Rosenstein also discussed identifying Cabinet members willing to invoke the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of a president who's unfit for office.
The departure of Rosenstein — who named Mueller to be special counsel in May 2017 — has enormous implications for the investigation and for the president. The resignation was reported earlier Monday by Axios.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand warned that Mueller's probe needs additional protection in light of Rosenstein's expected departure.
"The Senate must step up to protect the Special Counsel immediately," she said in a tweet. "We must pass the bipartisan bill to protect the Mueller investigation. The American people deserve answers about Russian interference in our democracy."
Current and former government officials, including lawmakers, had long warned Trump against firing or pushing out Rosenstein. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer warned Trump against seizing on the report that Rosenstein suggested covertly taping him.
"This story must not be used as a pretext for the corrupt purpose of firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in order install an official who will allow the president to interfere with the Special Counsel's investigation," Schumer said in a statement. He added that many "White House and cabinet officials have been reported to say critical things of the president without being fired."
Mueller has charged 25 Russian people and companies for election interference. He also has won guilty pleas and cooperation agreements from people around Trump, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Mueller is pursuing the possibility that people close to Trump colluded with representatives of Russia as well as whether Trump conspired to obstruct justice, inquiries the president has denounced as a "witch hunt."
Rosenstein made the decision to name a special counsel days after he took charge of the Russia probe, which he inherited when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the matter. Trump has mocked and criticized Sessions for doing so.
Trump can install a temporary replacement as deputy attorney general until he nominates a successor to Rosenstein who would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
However, the Justice Department has a line of succession that could let Solicitor General Noel Francisco assume control of the investigation. One question is whether that would be considered inappropriate given that Francisco is a former partner of the Jones Day law firm, which has represented Trump for years.
As solicitor general, Francisco has staunchly defended Trump administration policies while pursuing long-held conservative legal goals.
He successfully defended Trump's travel ban, drawing criticism for saying at argument that the president had "made crystal clear" he wasn't trying to impose barring Muslims. Francisco later sent the court a letter saying he had misstated the date on which Trump supposedly made those comments.
He reversed what had been the Obama administration's position on a number of high-profile issues in the court's last term.
Earlier this year, Francisco was photographed having dinner in downtown Washington with Sessions and Rosenstein in what some viewed as a show of support for an attorney general who was being sharply criticized by the president.
Francisco has been studiously silent about the Mueller probe, at last in public.
Rosenstein, 53, is a career prosecutor who was chosen by Trump to be the No. 2 official at the Justice Department last year. He previously served for 12 years as U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Rosenstein joined the Justice Department in 1990 and has been viewed as a respected public servant, credited with helping reshape the department's priorities.
In May, he stood up against Republican lawmakers who drafted articles of impeachment against him for refusing to turn over internal Justice Department documents that they said would reveal the questionable origins of the Russia probe.
"There are people who have been making threats, privately and publicly, against me for quite some time," Rosenstein said at a Law Day event in Washington. "I think they should understand by now the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted. We're going to do what's required by the rule of law."
But Rosenstein also riled some of Trump's critics in 2017, when he wrote a controversial letter outlining the case for firing then-FBI Director James Comey, saying he made "serious mistakes" in his handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. Trump cited Rosenstein's letter in firing Comey, although he later said it was because of the Russia investigation.
Trump grew increasingly angry at Mueller's investigation, and at Rosenstein's supervision of it. He discussed dismissing Rosenstein with aides at the White House in April, a person familiar with the matter said.
Trump and some Republican lawmakers have pressed the argument that Mueller's inquiry should be shut down because it was irreversibly tainted by improper actions early in the inquiry, well before Mueller was appointed.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel after Trump fired Comey, who had been overseeing the investigation. Rosenstein took control of the inquiry because Attorney General Sessions, an early Trump campaign supporter, recused himself from any matters related to the 2016 election, a move the president has openly derided.
"I don't have an attorney general. It's very sad," Trump said in an interview with Hill.TV, the Capitol Hill newspaper's online TV channel, that aired on Sept. 19.