‘A lit­tle steel in the spine’: Rosen­stein is start­ing to fight back

Deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral is not let­ting crit­ics in Con­gress get to him

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY MATT ZAPO­TO­SKY AND KAROUN DEMIR­JIAN matt.zapo­to­sky@wash­post.com karoun.demir­jian@wash­post.com

As law­mak­ers took breaks dur­ing a tense con­gres­sional hear­ing last week to vote on a res­o­lu­tion meant to shame him, Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein ca­su­ally worked the room, chat­ting up re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers who had come to hear his tes­ti­mony and shak­ing the hands of GOP con­gress­men who had just voted to cen­sure him.

Rosen­stein has been in the hot seat ever since he appointed Robert S. Mueller III to in­ves­ti­gate whether the Trump cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia to in­ter­fere in the 2016 elec­tion. The pres­i­dent dis­likes him, and con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans in Con­gress have toyed with im­peach­ing him over Rus­sia-re­lated doc­u­ments they say he will not hand over. Those who work for Rosen­stein know any day could be their boss’s last.

But in more than 14 months on the job, the for­mer Mary­land U.S. at­tor­ney seems to be get­ting used to the con­stant con­tro­versy and crit­i­cism that comes from over­see­ing Mueller. Rather than walk­ing on eggshells, he’s start­ing to fight back.

“I don’t know if it’s com­fort, but I think at some point he made a de­ci­sion that he would stay within the eth­i­cal bounds that he’s in, but he wouldn’t be a punch­ing bag,” said James M. Trusty, a for­mer Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial who is friends with Rosen­stein. “You see a lit­tle steel in the spine every now and then, where he’s just de­cided, ‘I’m go­ing to keep do­ing it my way.’ ”

Through a Jus­tice Depart­ment spokes­woman, Rosen­stein de­clined to com­ment.

At a House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing on June 28, Rosen­stein sparred with Repub­li­can law­mak­ers who ac­cused him of in­ap­pro­pri­ately with­hold­ing doc­u­ments on the Mueller probe and asked him whether he had threat­ened staffers on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. The nor­mally placid Rosen­stein shook his fin­ger at Rep. Jim Jor­dan (R-Ohio) in a fiery ex­change in which Jor­dan also told the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral his in­quiries were “not per­sonal.” He later raised doubts about Rosen­stein’s cred­i­bil­ity.

“Well, now, who are we sup­posed to be­lieve? Staff mem­bers who we’ve worked with, who have never mis­led us? Or you guys, who we’ve caught hid­ing in­for­ma­tion from us, who tell a wit­ness not to an­swer our ques­tions?” Jor­dan said.

“Thank you for mak­ing clear it’s not per­sonal, Mr. Jor­dan,” Rosen­stein re­torted, draw­ing laugh­ter from the room.

Soon af­ter the con­fronta­tion, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives voted 226 to 183 to pass a res­o­lu­tion call­ing on the Jus­tice Depart­ment to com­ply with con­gres­sional doc­u­ment re­quests by this past Fri­day. The move was es­sen­tially meant to hu­mil­i­ate Rosen­stein — who had told Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that the res­o­lu­tion failed to ac­knowl­edge the “ex­tra­or­di­nary” and “un­prece­dented” ef­forts that of­fi­cials have made to com­ply.

On Fri­day, the Jus­tice Depart­ment for­mally re­sponded to the res­o­lu­tion, telling top law­mak­ers on the House In­tel­li­gence and Ju­di­ciary com­mit­tees that of­fi­cials thought they had “sub­stan­tially com­plied” with Con­gress’s re­quests and any left­over pro­duc­tion of ma­te­ri­als would be com­pleted “ex­pe­di­tiously.” Just be­fore that, some of the law­mak­ers most bent on hold­ing Rosen­stein re­spon­si­ble for the pro­duc­tion of the doc­u­ments were sound­ing notes of op­ti­mism about the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s ex­pected com­pli­ance.

“I know there’s a long way be­tween prom­ise and ac­tual com­pli­ance, but the theme has been con­sis­tent this week that they are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” Rep. Mark Mead­ows (R-N.C.), the orig­i­nal au­thor of the res­o­lu­tion, said in an in­ter­view.

“Ob­vi­ously con­tempt and im­peach­ment mea­sures are cer­tainly on the ta­ble and avail­able to us . . . but there does seem to be a re­newed at­ti­tude of at least a de­sire to com­ply that goes well be­yond the words that we’ve been hear­ing for the last sev­eral months,” he added.

Ear­lier this year, Trump-al­lied con­ser­va­tives drafted ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment against Rosen­stein. The pres­i­dent — who has pub­licly crit­i­cized the Jus­tice Depart­ment for not turn­ing over doc­u­ments — has mused about fir­ing his deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Democrats charge that Repub­li­cans’ re­quests for doc­u­ments are part of a thinly veiled ef­fort to un­der­mine the Rus­sia probe. Their Repub­li­can col­leagues, they say, are es­sen­tially fish­ing for ma­te­rial that might dis­credit Mueller, or us­ing Rosen­stein’s re­fusal to hand over doc­u­ments on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as a way to dis­credit him.

That is im­por­tant be­cause Rosen­stein appointed and su­per­vises Mueller. If he were to be re­moved from his post, some Democrats fear his suc­ces­sor might place more lim­its on the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

At least pub­licly, Rosen­stein has not acted like a dead man walk­ing. He was spot­ted at a Fourth of July cel­e­bra­tion at the White House, in a VIP view­ing area, ac­cord­ing to Politico. Those who know him say Rosen­stein is play­ing the long game. He does not put too much stock in any sin­gle daily de­vel­op­ment, they say, but is mind­ful about what his place in history will be.

“There’s kind of a fa­tal­ism to it that’s good,” Trusty said. “He doesn’t over­re­act.”

So far, the strat­egy has paid off. The Jus­tice Depart­ment has for months been hag­gling with law­mak­ers over re­quests for var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als on the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate email server while she was sec­re­tary of state. But even as the pres­i­dent has raged about Rosen­stein, and law­mak­ers have re­peat­edly es­ca­lated the con­fronta­tion with new sub­poe­nas and threats, each seem­ingly omi­nous mo­ment has passed with­out in­ci­dent.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment and the FBI have as­signed ad­di­tional staffers to process doc­u­ment re­quests and tasked the U.S. at­tor­ney in Chicago with over­see­ing pro­duc­tion of ma­te­rial re­lated to Clin­ton.

Some Jus­tice Depart­ment de­ci­sions on pro­duc­ing doc­u­ments about an on­go­ing case have left le­gal an­a­lysts wor­ried that dan­ger­ous prece­dents are be­ing set. Georgetown Law pro­fes­sor Paul But­ler said he was par­tic­u­larly trou­bled when, af­ter the pres­i­dent de­manded on Twit­ter that the depart­ment in­ves­ti­gate whether the FBI had in­fil­trated his cam­paign for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses, Rosen­stein asked the in­spec­tor gen­eral to look into the mat­ter.

Rosen­stein has opined pub­licly that the Jus­tice Depart­ment can’t open its files to Con­gress. Dis­cussing the doc­u­ment spat dur­ing an event at the New­seum in May, Rosen­stein said of those threat­en­ing to im­peach him, “I think they should un­der­stand by now that the Depart­ment of Jus­tice is not go­ing to be ex­torted.”

But­ler, who worked with Rosen­stein when he was a Jus­tice Depart­ment pub­lic in­tegrity prose­cu­tor years ago, said col­leagues would jok­ingly re­fer to Rosen­stein as “Opie,” a char­ac­ter on TV’s Andy Grif­fith Show, in part be­cause of his boy­ish face, and in part be­cause he was al­ways ask­ing ques­tions. But But­ler said Rosen­stein was more shrewd and strate­gic than his “aw shucks” man­ner­ism leads some to be­lieve.

But­ler said that while Rosen­stein has had to “make some dif­fi­cult com­pro­mises,” many ca­reer prose­cu­tors look at him “as es­sen­tially re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing the in­tegrity of the depart­ment and, by ex­ten­sion, pre­serv­ing the rule of law dur­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.” On that score, But­ler said, Rosen­stein has had more good days than bad, and his re­cent con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony shows what he is try­ing to tell Repub­li­cans: The Depart­ment of Jus­tice is not to be played with.

“He’s al­ready com­pro­mised that mes­sage some,” But­ler said, “but there is a line with him that you can’t cross.”


Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein tes­ti­fies be­fore a House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing in late June. The nor­mally placid Rosen­stein clashed with Rep. Jim Jor­dan (ROhio), who raised doubts about his cred­i­bil­ity.

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