Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has found himself in the hot seat following the controversy around President Trump’s explosive decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
Appointed by former President George W. Bush, Rosenstein was little known outside of government circles. But that changed after Trump hung his 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 Clinton’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’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 Clinton 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, a 27-year Justice Department veteran, 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 celebrated in the problems Comey created for Clinton during the campaign, to now fire him for his public statements on the case.
Rosenstein is being accused of abetting the administration’s efforts to bury the Russian investigation and faces increasing calls to resign or recuse himself by appointing a special prosecutor, The Hill reports.
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.”