By TODD RUGER and RYAN LUCAS, CQ Roll Call
For a longtime federal prosecutor who won bipartisan praise from lawmakers for his professional integrity, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein quickly finds his reputation in the political frying pan.
Rosenstein made an unexpected appearance Thursday on Capitol Hill as Congress—and the country—was still coming to grips with President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. The deputy attorney general, whose memo the president used to help justify Comey’s dismissal less than 48 hours earlier, was greeted by a phalanx of TV cameras, photographers and journalists upon leaving his meeting with the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The job as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official under President Donald Trump was always going to come with intense scrutiny. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the FBI’s investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, so Rosenstein would make the call on whether a special prosecutor was needed in the historic probe.
But Trump’s decision to fire Comey, the man who was leading the FBI’s Russia investigation, combined with Rosenstein’s prominent role in the president’s move has turned the prosecutor into a divisive figure in less than two weeks on the job.
Rosenstein’s sit-down Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and vice chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., was planned before Comey’s dismissal, although it took on an added aura of intrigue in light of this week’s events.
Speaking to a crowd of reporters afterwards, Burr said their discussion focused on how to ensure the committee’s investigation into Russian election meddling does not conflict with the FBI’s own probe into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia.
Warner, standing beside Burr, called the meeting “productive,” but said he still has concerns about Rosenstein because of his role in Comey’s departure.
In an interview aired as Rosenstein met the senators, however, Trump downplayed the influence of Rosenstein’s memo. Speaking to NBC News, Trump said that “regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
The turmoil currently surrounding the deputy attorney general stands in stark contrast to the atmosphere on the Hill during his Senate confirmation. Rosenstein sailed through the process even as Democrats resisted as much as they could on nearly every other Trump nominee. His work as U.S. attorney for Maryland in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations gave Democrats comfort that he could stand up to Trump.
As a federal prosecutor for 27 years and the last 12 as top federal prosecutor in Maryland, Rosenstein was not a stranger to politically sensitive cases. He helped convict three people ensnared in the Whitewater scandal investigation in the 1990s, the probe under independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr that focused on President Bill Clinton.
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, on the Senate floor ahead of a 94-6 confirmation vote April 25, said he spent time asking Rosenstein about his career and views on protecting the integrity of the Justice Department.
“I came away with the impression that he’s someone who is independent, who would stand up for the law regardless of which party controlled the White House,” the New York Democrat said at the time. “And his career backs that up.”
But when Trump fired Comey on Tuesday afternoon, it was a three-page memo from Rosenstein, titled: “Restoring Confidence in the FBI,” that made the case for why Comey must go.
It seemed Democrats couldn’t believe Rosenthal’s memo Wednesday morning. Schumer on the Senate floor called for a classified, all-senators briefing with Rosenstein to ask questions including: “Did Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein act on his own or at the direction of his superiors or the White House?”
Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin pointed out that Rosenstein’s memo relies almost exclusively on Comey’s actions in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information on a private email system.
“I’m incredulous to think that some 10 months after the fact that the Trump administration took such pity on the treatment of Hillary Clinton, they couldn’t wait to fire the director of the FBI,” the Illinois Democrat said. “That’s the so-called good reason they’re giving us.”
Some in the legal community noted a hint of hesitation, perhaps, from Rosenstein.
Marty Lederman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote in a blog post that he didn’t absolve Rosenstein’s responsibility in “this transparently pretextual removal,” but noted Rosenstein’s memo “carefully avoids actually recommending that the President remove Comey.”
Rosenstein threatened to quit when the White House was casting him as the main force behind the recommendation to fire Comey, the Washington Post reported Wednesday citing anonymous sources.
Schumer called for Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor for the Trump-Russia investigation Wednesday morning. But by Wednesday afternoon, Schumer reversed course in floor remarks questioning Rosenstein’s integrity.
“Mr. Rosenstein cannot be the person to appoint that person,” Schumer said. “Serious doubt has been cast on Mr. Rosenstein’s impartiality for two reasons.”
First, the Democratic leader said, there are reports Comey met with Rosenstein last week to make a request for more resources or help with the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department denied those reports.
And second, Rosenstein “signed his name to a highly political memo” but made no complaint about the involvement of Sessions — who recused himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation but recommended the firing of Comey, Schumer said.
“These facts make it clear that the decision to appoint a special prosecutor should go to the highest-ranking career civil servant at the Department of Justice,” Schumer said. “Mr. Rosenstein and other political appointees should not be the ones making the call on a special prosecutor, lest that decision be seen as influenced, or worse, made at the direction of the administration.”
Democrats “seem to forget their very own conviction and vote” on Rosenstein, Cornyn said.
“I think we ought to give Mr. Rosenstein a chance to demonstrate he’s capable of leading that role at the Department of Justice,” Cornyn said.