Rod Rosenstein DOJ is reportedly headed out the door.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation, plans to step down from his post in the coming weeks, according to new reports from ABC News and NBC News.
Both reports stress that Rosenstein’s decision to leave the administration is voluntary, and that he plans to wait to do so until a new attorney general is confirmed. Trump’s AG nominee, Bill Barr, will face his Senate confirmation hearings next week.
As deputy attorney general, Rosenstein was responsible for the day-to-day running of the Justice Department. But the main reason his departure would have such import is that he appointed Mueller and spent nearly 18 months as the ultimate supervisor of Mueller’s probe (because Attorney General Jeff Sessions was recused).
Through all this time, Trump complained about Justice Department investigations into him and his associates, and repeatedly mused about firing top Justice Department officials and replacing them with loyalists. And in November, he finally did it, firing Sessions and appointing Matthew Whitaker as his acting replacement — meaning that Whitaker, not Rosenstein, became Mueller’s top overseer. But Rosenstein has reportedly continued to remain involved in the investigation in his role as Whitaker’s deputy.
Rosenstein’s departure and Barr’s potential confirmation raise serious questions about the Mueller investigation’s future. Back in May (months before Trump nominated him), Barr wrote a 19-page memo harshly criticizing Mueller’s investigation, particularly with regards to the special counsel’s reported focus on obstruction of justice and efforts to subpoena or question the president.
Yet Rosenstein seemed undisturbed. Publicly, he has praised Barr as an excellent choice. And when asked about Barr’s memo last month, Rosenstein said, “Our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn’t have.”
We continue to have very little idea of what’s going on in the Mueller investigation behind the scenes — for instance, what the probe has found related to the president, and how close Mueller is to finishing up. But Rosenstein’s apparently voluntary departure might seem to suggest that he believes the probe would be safe under his successor. Or he could simply believe his continued service as Barr’s deputy wouldn’t work — it isn’t clear.
Who is Rod Rosenstein?
Rosenstein joined the Justice Department all the way back in 1990 and has been there ever since, serving as a public corruptions prosecutor and then taking on management jobs under presidents of both parties. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed him to be US attorney for the state of Maryland, and he held that position throughout the Obama presidency as well.
After Trump won the presidency, he picked Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general. As a US senator, Sessions was an outsider to the DOJ. So he wanted someone who knew the department well in the deputy post (which is traditionally responsible for running things day to day). So he chose Rosenstein, who was respected by legal professionals in both parties.
The pick got little attention at the time but proved to be supremely important. In March 2017, Sessions announced he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation — meaning that as soon as Rosenstein was confirmed by the Senate, he’d be the top Justice Department official in charge of it.
Then, once Rosenstein was finally sworn in in late April, Trump waited only two weeks before inviting him and Sessions to the White House to discuss firing then-FBI Director James Comey. On May 8, 2017, Rosenstein wrote a memo harshly criticizing Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton email investigation and gave it to the White House. The very next day, Trump fired Comey and released Rosenstein’s memo as his justification.