Rod Rosenstein is expected to step down as deputy attorney general if William Barr is confirmed to lead the Justice Department, a move that would cap a tumultuous two-year tenure dominated by his oversight of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In his time as the Justice Department’s No. 2, Rosenstein was a lightning rod for criticism—particularly from President Donald Trump, who once ripped him for approving an application to extend surveillance of a former Trump campaign associate. With pressure coming from the White House, Rosenstein used speaking appearances to counter any notions that the Justice Department was losing its traditional independence.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Rosenstein made a mark on the department’s white-collar enforcement policies, including its approach to awarding credit for cooperation and assessing penalties.
Rosenstein’s expected departure was first reported by ABC News.
Barr’s confirmation hearing is currently scheduled for Jan. 15-16.
Here’s a look back at some of the moments that have highlighted or marred Rosenstein’s time at Main Justice:
Rosenstein, a former U.S. attorney in Maryland, began his DOJ tenure under the Trump administration with a bang. He was confirmed in April 2017, and less than a month later, made likely the most consequential decision of his career: appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel of the Russia investigation.
That probe has produced criminal charges against 33 individuals—26 of whom are Russian—and has secured guilty pleas or convictions of seven people.
Rosenstein has since faced pressure in his oversight role. Trump allies on Capitol Hill have repeatedly threatened to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress or impeach him. In May 2018, Rosenstein said, “The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”
Speaking Out On the Rule of Law
Rosenstein, a fan of dad-jokes and delivering speeches on the road, has often been the target of the president’s derisive tweets. But many lawyers in Washington have viewed Rosenstein as a bulwark within the DOJ, conscious of the department’s reputation and independence, and someone who’s made decisions and compromises to insulate Main Justice from political attack.
In remarks at a March 2018 white-collar conference, Rosenstein said: “You will not always agree with our policy decisions, and you definitely won’t hear this on cable TV, but the department leadership team appointed by President Trump is very strong on ethics and professionalism.”
“History will reflect that the Department of Justice operated with integrity on our watch,” he said.
The Wire Scandal
Still, Trump’s displeasure with Rosenstein hit a boiling point after a New York Times report said the DAG suggested secretly recording the president, and discussed recruiting cabinet members to push Trump from office through the Constitution’s 25th Amendment. Rosenstein disputed the scope of the report, but Trump still called Rosenstein’s reported remarks a “very sad story.” While speaking at a rally in Missouri, Trump vowed to “get rid of” the “lingering stench” at Main Justice.
The Rosenstein Memo
Trump said he was acting on the recommendations of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. In that memo, Rosenstein criticized Comey’s handling of the conclusions into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, and his decision to close the investigation without prosecution. According to the Washington Post, Rosenstein threatened to resign after the White House painted him as the key player in the decision to fire Comey.
The president, who has often derisively tweeted about Rosenstein and Mueller, said in June 2017: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!”
Stamp on White-Collar Prosecutions
While Rosenstein made headlines with his fraught oversight of the Mueller probe, behind the scenes he was leaving a mark on the Justice Department’s approach to corporate enforcement with policies that were largely welcomed by the white-collar defense bar.
In May, Rosenstein urged prosecutors to avoid “piling on” penalties when multiple agencies are involved and seeking their own separate fines. Rosenstein also advanced policies to incentivize voluntary disclosures of foreign bribery, saying there would be a presumption that the DOJ will decline to prosecute companies that come clean about misconduct and fully cooperate with investigations. More recently, he sought to give prosecutors more flexibility to award cooperation credit, throttling down the “all or nothing” approach that was criticized for unnecessarily dragging out investigations—in some cases to uncover information about individuals who were unlikely to face prosecution.
For months following his April 2017 confirmation, Rosenstein lacked Senate-confirmed company in the upper echelon of the Justice Department ranks. At roughly the first-year anniversary of his confirmation, with picks for top Main Justice roles still awaiting votes, Rosenstein began to speak up about the Senate’s slow pace moving on nominees for assistant attorney general posts. Among the nominees waiting for votes at the time were former Kirkland & Ellis partner Brian Benczkowski, who now leads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and Jeffrey Clark, now the head of the Environmental Division.
In May 2018, Rosenstein said he was “honored” to deliver remarks at a conference in Washington—but said he’d hoped to delegate speaking opportunities to assistant attorneys general.
“Two months ago, I received invitations to several corporate fraud-related events focused on the department’s role, and I expected to delegate some of these events to those outstanding nominees for assistant attorney general who are awaiting confirmation by the United States Senate,” Rosenstein said. “Drawing on their highly qualified backgrounds and experiences, they would help implement and spread our message about deterring corporate fraud and promoting the rule of law. Unfortunately only two of the seven litigating divisions of the Department of Justice have Senate-confirmed leaders.”