Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who wrote the memo that led to Tuesday’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, is no stranger to politically explosive cases.
In the 1990s, Rosenstein (pronounced Rosen-STINE) was on a team of prosecutors appointed by Kenneth Starr to investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “Whitewater” business dealings in Arkansas. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder tapped him to investigate national security leaks to news outlets, a response to heavy criticism of the Obama administration by congressional Republicans.
Rosenstein is one of those rare career prosecutors who have managed not only to survive but also to thrive, in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. Lawyers who worked with him call him a “consummate public servant,” but his actions and self-proclaimed independence are now under scrutiny like never before.
The FBI and Justice Department are in the midst of an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in last year’s election. With Attorney General Jeff Sessions having recused himself from the probe, Rosenstein, a registered Republican who lives in the Washington suburbs, is in a position to appoint an independent special prosecutor.
Under questioning during his March 8 Senate confirmation hearing, Rosenstein said he’d be willing to appoint a special counsel “whenever I determine that it’s appropriate based on the policies and procedures of the Justice Department.”
Democrats are now pressing Rosenstein to make that move. “During his confirmation hearings, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein agreed to appoint a special prosecutor if one was required,” Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement Wednesday. “There is no more appropriate time than now.”
Rosenstein’s role in the ouster of Comey has roiled Washington and thrust him into the kind of limelight he generally has sought to avoid. It was less than three weeks ago, on April 25, that the Senate confirmed him to his job on a 94-6 vote. Until Tuesday, there was no public sign that Rosenstein had been looking into Comey’s actions and making an argument for his ouster. Comey told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing May 3 that he’d briefed Rosenstein on the details of the Russia probe on Rosenstein’s first day in office.
In his memo Tuesday to the attorney general – titled “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI” – Rosenstein criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey announced last July that the case should be closed without prosecution, a decision that Rosenstein and others in the Department of Justice say should have been determined by the DOJ.
“I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken,” Rosenstein wrote. “Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”
Some Democrats have questioned whether Rosenstein was pressured by the White House to write the memo, a claim the White House rejects. Administration officials say Rosenstein and Sessions met with Trump on Monday, a private meeting first reported by McClatchy.
The two argued that Comey should be terminated, and Trump asked them to put their concerns in writing, according to administration officials. This account was later repeated by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a briefing Wednesday.
In his memo, Rosenstein didn’t explicitly call for Comey’s firing, but his denunciation of the FBI director’s actions made it easier for Trump to fire him, while rebutting claims that the decision was aimed at derailing the Russia investigation.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said Rosenstein’s concerns were a primary factor in the president’s decision.
“He is a man of extraordinary independence and integrity . . . and great character,” Pence said of Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general “brought that recommendation to the president” and Trump agreed, Pence said.
Rosenstein is a 52-year old native of Philadelphia who earned his law degree at Harvard University, graduating cum laude in 1989 after serving as editor of the Harvard Law Review, a position that Obama also once held. Rosenstein then worked as a law clerk for Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Rosenstein joined the Department of Justice in 1990, prosecuting public corruption cases in a division then led by Assistant Attorney General Robert S. Mueller III, who later served as FBI director for two years under George W. Bush and Obama.
Democrats have long viewed Rosenstein with suspicion, especially when he was involved in the Whitewater investigation, which preceded Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Years later, in 2007, Maryland’s U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, blocked George W. Bush’s attempt to nominate Rosenstein to a federal appeals court in Virginia, saying they preferred that Rosenstein remain U.S. attorney in Maryland.
Despite being appointed U.S. attorney by Bush, Obama retained Rosenstein in the job and Holder gave him high-profile assignments, such as rooting out leakers. Rosenstein was part of the 2012 federal probe into retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty last year – and later was pardoned by Obama – to lying to the FBI about his discussions with reporters on Iran’s nuclear program.
After Trump nominated Rosenstein to be deputy attorney general, five former prosecutors who had worked with him in the Obama Justice Department endorsed his selection.
“During the course of his distinguished career, Rod has earned a reputation as an apolitical public servant who impartially pursues the cause of justice without regard to politics or any other influence,” the assistant attorneys general wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Comey’s firing has thrown congressional and FBI investigations into turmoil, just as Rosenstein’s memo has raised questions about the impartiality of the Justice Department. Eric Columbus, who had worked with Rosenstein in the Obama Justice Department, went to Twitter on Tuesday to suggest that the deputy attorney general might well appoint a special prosecutor to protect the department’s public standing.
“He cares about DOJ’s reputation,” tweeted Columbus. “He’s not a hack – he’s been at DOJ for 27 years, under five different presidents.”