During a highly anticipated public appearance Thursday at the American Bar Association’s annual conference in Chicago, embattled U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein avoided speaking directly about his controversial role overseeing an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein’s speech, billed to be about “the supremacy of the law,” was greeted with a long chorus of applause at the Hyatt Regency by a standing room only crowd, whom he greeted with a joke: “Deputy attorney general of the United States, you might have heard of it. It’s a low-profile, middle-management job.”
Of course, there has been little low-profile about the No. 2 at Main Justice. Just last week, Rosenstein was the target of articles of impeachment. But if he wanted to make any direct statements about the politics surrounding his role—and the questions about how long he will be in his job—Rosenstein refrained.
Instead, he spent much of his half-hour speech recalling historical U.S. lawyers who had defended the Constitution or stood up for the rule of law. Rosenstein hailed John Adams for defending British soldiers following the Boston Massacre. He also said he agreed with Abraham Lincoln in that the best way to combat “sharp political divisions and rising passions” was to advocate for the respect of the rule of law.
“It remains essential for citizens to understand the legal principles that undergird our Constitution,” Rosenstein said. “Our system of government is not self-executing. It relies on wisdom and self-restraint. In a democratic republic, liberty is protected by cultural norms, as well as by constitutional text.”
Rosenstein also joked that he felt some commonality with another U.S. attorney general, Robert Jackson, who faced a controversy over responding to congressional inquiries; a task that some of today’s Republicans have criticized Rosenstein over.
“Jackson understood that fundamental things in our American way of life depend on the integrity, courage and straight thinking of government lawyers,” said Rosenstein, partially quoting the former attorney general. “Although political tempers flare from time to time, Jackson remained confident that ‘temporary passion’ will eventually yield to ‘sober second thought’ about the rule of law.”
Rosenstein added: “We need to avoid any temptation to compromise important principles and seek a short-term benefit at the expense of long-term values. The Department of Justice must never be a partisan actor. Our agents and prosecutors are obligated to make neutral decisions.”
Congressional Republicans have focused their attacks on accusing Rosenstein and the Justice Department of stalling in turning over documents for a U.S. House of Representatives probe into the FBI’s handling of an email investigation involving former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and an inquiry into Trump’s campaign team and Russia.
Last week, Rosenstein was the subject of an ill-fated impeachment effort brought by a group of House Republicans. That effort was quickly scrapped after House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced his skepticism about the maneuver.
Rosenstein, a Republican who served as the top U.S. attorney in Maryland for 12 years before his appointment last year as No. 2 at the Justice Department, was first thrust into the national spotlight in May 2017 after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey Jr. Rosenstein’s memo, written at the behest of the White House, supported Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
Rosenstein has since overseen Mueller’s inquiry into allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election since shortly after U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Sessions III recused himself in March 2017.
In a brief question-and-answer session after his remarks, Rosenstein defended the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy as a decision in the wake of a surge of illegal border crossings to “devote the resources to prosecute all the cases evenly.” He avoided the controversy over children being separated from their parents as part of that policy.
Rosenstein appeared comfortable in front of his fellow lawyers, smiling and joking much of the time, in contrast to his recent fiery testimony before Congress. At the end of his speech Thursday evening, when he received his second extended standing ovation, Rosenstein joked, “Please, can I stay?”