The single attribute most commonly used to describe Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is his nonpartisan, apolitical approach. This image of a professional civil servant holding the ship of state steady against the winds of politics as administrations come and go has been the main theme in media coverage of Rosenstein, the self-effacing Maryland attorney thrust into the epicenter of an investigation that could change the course of American politics.
The lawyer started his career in government on the team investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater affair. Now he’s investigating President Trump, who tapped him two months ago. Rosenstein knew that whoever filled the deputy slot would be running the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself. That short time span has eroded Rosenstein’s Mr. Clean reputation, built and buffed over decades of service.
First, Rosenstein faced criticism from Democrats who viewed his legal opinion on James Comey as providing cover for Trump’s move to eliminate an FBI director conducting a sensitive investigation. Now, he is under fire from Trump himself, who, without naming Rosenstein, accused the deputy attorney general of responsibility for a “witch hunt” the president feels is being conducted against him.
“I have bipartisan opposition,” Rosenstein joked in a text message to a friend the day he took office. But he didn’t know the half of it.
Stuck in the middle, Rosenstein himself may be the next victim of the Russian probe, reportedly considering recusing himself from the investigation and handing it over to the next in command at the Department of Justice, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand.
But in the meantime, Rosenstein goes his bureaucratic way, making moves that annoy both parties. He helped Trump dump Comey, but immediately afterward he installed Robert Mueller as the special investigator looking into the Russian interference. He angered the Obama administration with his tough investigation into leaks by Gen. James Cartwright, and pleased the Trump White House by issuing an unexplained statement June 15 discrediting leaks from the intelligence community. But then somehow he got caught in Trump’s crosshairs for allowing the expansion of the Russian probe to include an investigation into the president’s alleged obstruction of justice.
“Obviously, he’s agreed to serve in the Trump administration, so he’s agreed to carry out the policy of the president,” said Russell Wheeler, a governance expert from the Brookings Institution. But Wheeler noted that senior Justice Department officials are not expected to demonstrate the same type of loyalty to the president as other top government choices. “The Department of Justice is one step away from the concept” of unquestioning adherence to the president’s policies, he said.
Little was known of the 52-year-old Jewish attorney before he took office as the DOJ’s second in charge. Rosenstein’s professional career helped fortify the image of a legal nerd par excellence who uses his law books to take on criminals by day, and spends his evenings shuttling his two daughters to soccer practice in their suburban Washington neighborhood. His wife, Lisa Barsoomian, is also a lawyer in government; she works for the National Institutes of Health. On federal holidays, according to a New York Times profile, Rosenstein used to send his staff lengthy emails packed with historical background and factoids about the holiday.
Born and raised outside Philadelphia, Rosenstein attended Wharton and Harvard universities and joined the justice department after completing his clerkship. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to serve as the United States attorney for the District of Maryland, and the United States Senate confirmed him unanimously. In 2008, President Obama kept him on. Rosenstein was confirmed by a bipartisan vote of 96–4 in the Senate this year, making him one of the few Trump nominations to win almost wall-to-wall support. His Jewish life also remains private, apart from a few details Rosenstein had to reveal in his Senate questionnaire, which indicated he was a member of the Reform Temple Sinai synagogue in D.C., of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and of a Jewish community center’s sports league.
But the recent spotlight on Rosenstein highlights several actions that call into question his reputation for nonpartisanship.
Critics saw his three-page letter providing the legal justification for the firing of Comey as a sign that he caved into political pressure from his new boss. In fact, Rosenstein told lawmakers in a hearing, he had believed even before taking office that Comey should be removed, because his handling of the Clinton investigation hurt the FBI’s credibility. Trump, however, sought to boot Comey for other reasons, and then used Rosenstein’s memo as a sign that his move had legal backing.
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
More recently, Rosenstein came under fire from Trump critics on June 15, when he issued an unprompted statement warning Americans to “exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’” and to “be skeptical” about anonymous allegations. What made Rosenstein issue the statement? Critics view it as a gesture to Trump and his aides, who had been claiming that leaks about the Russian investigation are inaccurate and politically motivated. But others believe it may have been Rosenstein’s long-standing aversion to government leaks, and his feeling, faced with a barrage of Washington Post stories about the Russian investigations, that leaks are making his job and that of Mueller even more difficult.
It’s rare that deputy attorneys general receive so much attention, although Rosenstein, who took the job knowing that Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe, was aware that his job is going to be judged by this ultrasensitive investigation. At his send-off party at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, Rosenstein joked that the average length of tenure for those serving as deputy attorney general is just over a year. Given how tumultuous his first few months have been, that year might seem like eternity for the career civil servant.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman