shadow

In Rosenstein’s personal saga, signs of the course of Russia investigation

Why We Wrote This

This week President Trump may at last meet with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Any move by the White House to oust him could dramatically undercut the Trump-Russia investigation, according to some analysts. 

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves his home on Sept. 27, 2018, in Bethesda, Md.

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A career Justice Department official who has worked under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Rod Rosenstein spent years cultivating an image as an independent operator, a kind of nonpartisan, fair broker. But his role at the center of the Trump-Russia investigation has made him into something of a reluctant hero on the left and a lightning rod on the right. This week, Mr. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, may face the grim prospect of a face-to-face meeting with President Trump to explain a recent New York Times report, that in May of 2017 he suggested that he might wear a wire to gather evidence against the president. He also reportedly raised the idea of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office. Rosenstein has said the report was inaccurate, and for now, it appears that he may remain in his job – at least until after November’s midterm elections. But analysts say any move by the White House to oust Rosenstein could dramatically undercut the Trump-Russia investigation. “If Rosenstein is no longer in that job, whoever comes in to serve as the acting attorney general over the Russia investigation could slowly strangle that investigation and could constrain its resources,” says Sarah Turberville, director of The Constitution Project at the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight.

This week Rod Rosenstein may finally face the grim prospect of a face-to-face meeting with President Trump to explain something many Trump supporters consider wholly inexplicable.

According to a recent New York Times report, in May of 2017, Mr. Rosenstein, the newly installed deputy attorney general, allegedly suggested to senior FBI and Justice Department officials that he might wear a concealed recording device to gather evidence against the president. He also reportedly raised the idea of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office.

Rosenstein has said the New York Times report was inaccurate, and his defenders said his comments about wearing a wire were made in jest. But to critics, the report seemed to verify a central thesis of many Republicans – including conservative members of Congress – of a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine the Trump presidency.

Washington has been abuzz with anticipation that Rosenstein might resign or be fired. For now, it appears more likely that he will remain in his job – at least until after November’s midterm elections. 

But analysts are watching closely to see what happens next. Any move by the White House to oust the deputy attorney general could dramatically undercut the Trump-Russia investigation.

“If Rosenstein is no longer in that job, whoever comes in to serve as the acting attorney general over the Russia investigation could slowly strangle that investigation and could constrain its resources,” says Sarah Turberville, director of the Constitution Project at the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight.

“The [Rosenstein replacement] could decide there won’t be any new approvals of new surveillance or warrants,” she added.  

Rosenstein is expected to participate this week in a closed-door session with members of Congress, who also want to closely question him about his May 2017 comments.

Many are furious at what they see as Rosenstein’s stonewalling of longstanding congressional requests for Justice Department and FBI documents dealing with the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation. Among the documents Congress has been seeking: memos written by then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who is currently under investigation for allegedly misleading Justice Department officials investigating an unauthorized leak to the news media, and who was fired last March. The Times report was based on leaked content from the McCabe memos. 

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee took the unusual step of issuing a subpoena for the McCabe memos.

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy (R), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was asked on Sunday what he hoped to learn from a meeting with Rosenstein this week. “I need to see the memos,” he said in an interview on Fox News. “I need to ask Rod what he said, and then we’ll get to what he meant. Those may or may not be the same thing.”

An independent operator 

Rosenstein has occupied a somewhat unique role in the Trump administration.

He has spent his entire career at the Justice Department, including serving twelve years as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. He was confirmed as deputy attorney general in the Trump administration by a Senate vote of 94 to 6.

He has cultivated an image as an independent operator, a kind of nonpartisan fair broker. But his role at the center of the Trump-Russia investigation has made him into something of a hero on the left and a lightening rod on the right.  

After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, it was Rosenstein who decided to appoint Robert Mueller to investigate suspected collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians who meddled in the 2016 election.

And it was Rosenstein who approved an expansive scope for Mr. Mueller’s investigation, making it broad enough to include allegations of obstruction of justice against Trump himself.

Since his confirmation, Rosenstein has personally supervised every aspect of the investigation, including signing a controversial secret application under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize spying on a former advisor to the Trump campaign.

(No charges have been filed against the target of that year-long surveillance. There is no indication whether the surveillance yielded intelligence about members of the Trump campaign, the Trump administration, or the president.) 

Rosenstein also approved the FBI’s controversial raid on the home, office, and hotel room of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Mr. Cohen has since pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign finance charges, and has reportedly agreed to cooperate with prosecutors against Trump.

During this same time, Rosenstein has steadfastly refused to turn over documents requested by Trump supporters in Congress who are investigating what they see as a conspiracy among certain officials at the Justice Department, FBI, and the broader intelligence community to undermine the Trump campaign and, later, the Trump presidency. 

In an effort to circumvent Rosenstein, members of Congress went directly to the president. Last month they convinced Trump to order the immediate public release, without redaction, of a range of documents related to the Trump-Russia investigation.  

Justice Department officials pushed back, warning that release of the documents could have a “perceived negative impact” on the special counsel’s Trump-Russia investigation. A few days later, Trump reversed his directive, and instead asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to review the documents and release them on an expedited basis. No specific timetable was imposed.

Mixed response to allegations

Trump supporters have been divided over how the president should respond to the recent revelations about Rosenstein. Fox News host Sean Hannity has been a loud and frequent critic of both Rosenstein and Mueller. But he suggested the leak to the New York Times was a trap designed to infuriate Trump and trigger the firing of Rosenstein in advance of November’s midterm elections. Mr. Hannity advised Trump not to fire the deputy attorney general. 

“It is all a set-up,” Hannity warned on his program.

In contrast, Laura Ingraham, whose Fox News program follows Hannity’s on the network’s evening lineup, advocated for the immediate firing of Rosenstein.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) says the president just needs to have a candid conversation with the deputy attorney general. “I wouldn’t fire Rosenstein unless there is some real credible evidence, other than [from] McCabe, that he did something improper,” he said on Fox News.

But Democrats warned that Trump could use the controversy over Rosenstein’s alleged comments as an excuse to replace the deputy attorney general with a loyalist – who might then fire Mueller or quietly restrict the scope of the investigation in ways the public would not see.

“The president has the right to remove anybody who serves at the pleasure of the president, but a right is different than the responsible or the reasonable thing to do,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Rosenstein must stay there to defend the integrity of the [Trump-Russia] investigation until it is finished,” he said. “That is very important for the integrity of American democracy.” 

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