In a quarter century at the U.S. Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein burnished a reputation as an apolitical prosecutor.
A Justice Department lifer, he counted Robert Jackson, the former attorney general and Supreme Court justice, as his personal hero and quoted him relentlessly—”5.2 times per hour on a typical workday,” said Beth Williams, head of the department’s Office of Legal Policy, on Thursday.
Rosenstein served under five presidents and nine attorneys general—10, he declared in remarks Thursday at Main Justice, “if you count Bill Barr twice.” Rosenstein’s career as Maryland’s top federal prosecutor would cross the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In 2017, the Senate confirmed him by a vote of 94-6 to what he thought would be a low-profile role: deputy attorney general.
He bid farewell Thursday in a ceremony that underscored how his tenure as the second-ranking Justice Department official—the capstone of his career—put him in a political crucible, making him the target of fevered media attention and the ire of President Donald Trump.
In his remarks, Rosenstein spoke repeatedly of rising above politics and resisting “pressure to compromise principles.”
“The rule of law requires us to ignore partisan politics, tune out the news cycle, and base our decisions on credible evidence,” he said. Some of his role models, he said, were famous political appointees but others were career public servants, as he once was.
Rosenstein’s colleagues, gathered in the Great Hall at Main Justice, did not shy away from the matter that dominated Rosenstein’s tenure as the deputy attorney general: his appointment and oversight of Robert Mueller III as the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Rosenstein’s farewell was attended by past and present members of the Justice Department’s brass, including Matthew Whitaker, who served as acting attorney general in the interregnum between Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ and Barr’s tenures.
Also in the crowd were luminaries of the conservative legal community, including Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Theodore Olson and Chuck Cooper of Cooper & Kirk, who has served as Sessions’ lawyer. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, were announced as distinguished guests.
The farewell ceremony came at a particularly unsettling time for the Justice Department. A day earlier, a U.S. House panel recommended holding Barr in contempt over the Justice Department’s refusal to comply with a congressional subpoena demanding the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying materials.
The rollout of the Mueller report, including the revelation that the special counsel expressed concerns about how Barr summarized its findings in a four-page letter to Congress, had raised questions about whether the Justice Department leadership was improperly defending Trump.
In brief remarks at Thursday’s ceremony, Sessions defended Rosenstein’s handling of the Russia investigation, including his decision to appoint Mueller as special counsel. Sessions routinely faced the ire of Trump for recusing himself from leading the Russia investigation, and Rosenstein’s role overseeing the probe put him regularly in the president’s crosshairs.
“There was a continual uproar. Decisions had to be made, and those decisions fell to him,” Sessions said Thursday. “They fell to him alone. He had become the attorney for this matter he made every decision based on his best judgments of what he thought was best for this country. He stayed the course during some of the most difficult times in the history of the department.”
Weeks earlier, during a speech in New York, Rosenstein defended his oversight of the Russia probe and lashed out at politicians, the news media and what he called “mercenary critics.” His remarks Thursday, on the eve of his departure from the Justice Department, were relatively sober.
He spoke about broader principles and his admiration for the Justice Department, recycling a line from his April speech: “I joined the Department of Justice because I believe in the mission. I stayed because I believe in the people.” In one of the few laugh lines, he recalled saying—inaccurately, it would turn out—that the deputy attorney general role would be a “low-profile job.”
His past and current colleagues reminded him of how wrong he was on that point. Sessions, for instance, recounted the singer-songwriter Ben Folds writing a song about Rosenstein and the “paparazzi” attention to a dinner he had with Rosenstein and Solicitor General Noel Francisco during a fraught time in relations with Trump.
“We’ve had many wonderful times, but things were often a bit not normal,” he said.
A reflection on Rosenstein’s nearly 30-year career at the Justice Department captured longstanding ties between some of the leading figures in the Russia investigation. When Rosenstein joined the Justice Department in 1990, Barr, jokingly referring to himself, said there was a “svelte and dynamic deputy attorney general.”
“In those days, the deputy job was a lot different. But I’ll tell you now, the attorney general job was a lot different. This must be a record of an attorney general being proposed for contempt within 100 days,” Barr said.
But Rosenstein’s time at the Justice Department had truly begun in the late 1980s, with an internship at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. The acting U.S. attorney at the time was “none other than Bob Mueller,” Barr said. “And Bob then went on to be assistant attorney general for the criminal division, where Rod was first assigned as an honors program lawyer.”
“Little did we know that we’d be getting the old band back together.”