Onetime colleagues and former officials wonder how the deputy attorney general became Trump’s hatchet man.
Until Tuesday night, Rod Rosenstein was one of the least known, but most powerful men in Washington. The deputy attorney general was catapulted out of obscurity when President Donald Trump fired FBI Director Jim Comey and said he had relied on Rosenstein’s judgement to do it.
Former Justice Department officials are now puzzling over how a man they describe as a consummate professional appears to have allowed himself to be used by the Trump White House to oust the FBI director. In interviews with Foreign Policy on Wednesday, Rosenstein’s former colleagues — all of whom insisted on anonymity — wondered why a man they admired for his integrity would become a hatchet man for Trump.
“Rod is not an idiot. He’s an experienced, intelligent, and savvy guy. He must understand that it is insane to fire a sitting FBI director while he is investigating Russia and collusion,” said one former Justice Department lawyer who worked for Rosenstein when he was the top federal prosecutor in Maryland.
In a scorching three-page memo, Rosenstein said Comey’s handling of the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system had compromised public trust in the FBI by announcing in a July 2016 press conference that the FBI would be recommending against prosecution of the then-putative Democratic nominee for president. Going public with his recommendation, Rosenstein argued, usurped the authority of Justice Department superiors.
Even though Trump cited Rosenstein’s memo in firing Comey, the deputy attorney general stopped just short of suggesting that Comey be removed. “Rod is smart enough to know that the fact that he doesn’t technically call for Jim Comey’s firing is meaningless,” the former Justice Department lawyer said.
With Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the FBI’s probe of Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible collusion between Trump associates and the Kremlin, Rosenstein has responsibility for overseeing an explosive investigation. On Tuesday, CNN reported that a grand jury issued subpoenas for business associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was fired less than a month into his job, allegedly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
When Rosenstein was announced as the Trump administration’s choice for deputy attorney general, many in the law enforcement community breathed a sigh of relief. A career Justice Department official who was appointed by President George W. Bush to be the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Rosenstein was widely credited with turning around an office that had been in disarray. As the only U.S. attorney appointed under Bush who stayed in his job during the Obama years, Rosenstein was widely viewed as a steady hand who might temper some of the worst excesses of the Trump administration.
His role in providing the justification for Comey’s firing has led some Justice Department veterans to question that assessment, however. “I’m incredibly troubled and disappointed that Rosenstein would be party to this,” said one former national security official at the Justice Department. “I always thought his integrity was incredibly high.”
Facing intense backlash, the White House’s explanations for firing Comey have markedly shifted in the 24 hours since the initial announcement. First, Trump lieutenants claimed that the president acted on the Justice Department’s recommendation in dismissing Comey, but multiple media reports claim that Trump made up his mind to fire the FBI chief and then tasked the Justice Department to justify his decision.
By Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had been considering firing Comey since he was inaugurated, further undermining the Trump administration’s first set of talking points. Nonetheless, she said, Trump had acted at the urging of Justice Department officials, who had pushed the president to respond to “atrocities” committed by Comey.
Rosenstein’s scathing memo describing those so-called atrocities was likely heartfelt, according to his former colleagues. A veteran of numerous public corruption prosecutions, Rosenstein was meticulous in his adherence to Justice Department guidelines to avoid influencing elections and to keep investigations confidential — rules that he believes Comey flouted in his July press conference and his October letter announcing that he had reopened the Clinton investigation.
“There’s a legitimate argument that Comey screwed up, that he screwed up big time, and that he screwed up big enough to pressure him to resign,” said one former prosecutor who worked under Rosenstein. “The mystery is why he thinks that a memo that calls for everything but an explicit firing is ok.”
Said another veteran of the Maryland prosecutor’s office: “I don’t understand how Rod could be used as a pawn so easily.”
Rosenstein now faces intense political criticism from congressional Democrats, who are calling for an independent investigator to be appointed to oversee the probe into Russian meddling and ties to the Trump campaign. They insist that Rosenstein cannot select the investigator.
“That special prosecutor ought be appointed by someone who was a senior career official at Justice Department — not another one of these political appointees,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is running a parallel investigation of the Russian hacking and its links to Trump. On Wednesday, his panel subpoenaed Flynn for documents related to that investigation.
Reached by phone in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of Rosenstein’s former law professors at Harvard, Philip Heymann, who himself served as deputy attorney general during the Bill Clinton administration, had some advice for his former student. “If I were talking to Rod,” he said, “I would tell him to hire a special counsel or an independent prosecutor because he can’t establish the credibility that he said was the purpose of firing Comey.”
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images