The controversy around President Trump's explosive decision to fire FBI Director James Comey has thrust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein into the spotlight.
Rosenstein, a 27-year Justice Department veteran, was little known outside of government circles until Tuesday.
That’s when the White House hung its decision to fire Comey, who led the FBI investigation into potential ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia, on a memo Rosenstein wrote criticizing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonI voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary Meghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' MORE’s private email server.
Rosenstein's notion that Comey overstepped his bounds, broke protocol and generally politicized the Clinton investigation is accepted by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as many legal scholars and law enforcement officials.
But the White House's changing story on the role Rosenstein's memo played in Comey's firing has become central to the controversy and reportedly drove Rosenstein to threaten to resign — a claim he denies.
Rosenstein has been in the fire before, working on Ken Starr’s independent counsel investigation into the Whitewater affair during the Clinton administration
Appointed by former President George W. Bush, Rosenstein was one of only three U.S. attorneys kept on by the Obama administration.
Rosenstein’s confirmation vote in late April provoked little opposition from a normally hyperpartisan Congress. Ninety-four U.S. senators voted in his favor, an indication that even most Democrats were at ease with Rosenstein taking the lead on Russia at the Justice Department.
Now, less than three weeks later, Rosenstein has become one of the most polarizing figures in Washington.
“I had very high regard for Rod as a prosecutor and public servant. He was a true and dedicated and capable prosecutor every step of the way and served multiple administration,” said Ron Hosko, the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. “However, his involvement in these events and the timing is questionable. That it’s his second week on the job and he’s focused on something James Comey did nine months ago is beyond curious to me.”
Rosenstein’s memo, produced at the request of the White House, argued that Comey had no right to “usurp” the Justice Department’s authority as to whether to bring charges against Clinton — even after then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch recused herself from the investigation over an impromptu meeting with former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton shares video update after release from hospital Biden, Democrats risk everything unless they follow the Clinton pivot (they won't) Giuliani picks Abe Lincoln filter for attack against McAuliffe MORE that raised concerns about her partiality.
Comey “ignored another longstanding principle” by holding a press conference to “release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” Rosenstein wrote.
Rosenstein also argued that Comey had no obligation to send a letter to lawmakers revealing that the FBI had renewed its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s server a few days before the 2016 election — a decision that Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president last year, blames in part for her November defeat.
Those criticisms are not controversial on Capitol Hill, where Comey is widely viewed to have overstepped his bounds at the infamous press conference last July, in which he said that Clinton had carelessly handled sensitive information as secretary of State but that there was no legal case to support charges against her.
But the political implications of Rosenstein’s memo have overcome its content.
Democrats say it is the height of hypocrisy for Trump, who reveled in the problems Comey created for Clinton during the campaign, to now fire him for his public statements on the case.
Rosenstein’s critics accuse him of abetting what they view as the administration’s efforts to bury the Russian investigation. Rosenstein faces calls to resign or recuse himself by appointing a special prosecutor.
In an NBC News interview last week, Trump praised his deputy attorney general and took sole responsibility for the decision, appearing to contradict the letter to Comey where Trump claimed he based the decision on Rosenstein’s memo.
“He made a recommendation,” Trump said of Rosenstein. “He’s highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him; the Republicans like him. He made a recommendation, but regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
Writing at the widely read Lawfare blog, though, Brookings Institution senior fellow and Comey friend Benjamin Wittes said the damage to Rosenstein has been done.
“Trump happily traded the reputation of Rosenstein, who began the week as a well-respected career prosecutor, for barely 24 hours of laughably transparent talking points in the news cycle,” Wittes wrote.
“These are the costs of working for Trump, and it took Rosenstein only two weeks to pay them. The only decent course now is to name a special prosecutor and then resign.”
Press reports indicate Rosenstein was caught off guard by the administration’s reliance on his memo to justify Comey’s firing.
One report — denied by Rosenstein — said he threatened to resign. Another said he called White House counsel Don McGahn to object to the way the administration portrayed him as responsible for Comey’s firing.
Still, experts interviewed by The Hill said it strains credulity to believe Rosenstein would not have known how the memo would be used.
“When you’re in one of these positions, you sometimes have to spend your own political capital,” said one former Justice Department official. “I could see how, as the heat built, he might be frustrated and express concern about it, but it seems like he would have known.”
Rosenstein will brief senators on the decision to fire Comey and the state of the Russia investigation this week, but many senators who voted for the deputy attorney general now say they’ve lost confidence in him.
“I’ve now read Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo three times. With each read I’ve become more troubled by the contents of this unusual document,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel Feinstein Ban on new offshore drilling must stay in the Build Back Better Act Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Jane Fonda to push for end to offshore oil drilling in California MORE (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
“The attorney general and deputy attorney general should recuse themselves from the appointment, selection and reporting of a special counsel. This issue should be handled by the most senior career attorney at the Justice Department.”
But it will be difficult for Rosenstein, who is leading the Russia investigation because Sessions recused himself after it was revealed he failed to disclose to lawmakers a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, to agree to a special counsel.
Rosenstein argued against appointing special counsel in his nomination hearing, and the White House and many GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill say that it would be a waste of time and money.
“We don’t think it’s necessary,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a Thursday briefing.
“You’ve got the deputy attorney general who I would say is about as independent as it comes, due to the fact that he has such bipartisan support,” she added.