Rod Rosenstein testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing to be deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice March 7, 2017. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
Rod Rosenstein has his work cut out for him now that he’s officially U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ right-hand man.
Attorneys are looking to Rosenstein, a lifelong public servant, to bring a dose of stability to the U.S. Department of Justice after the U.S. Senate confirmed him 94-6 as the deputy attorney general Tuesday. President Donald Trump’s Justice Department has already hit a series of speed bumps during its first few months, including the sudden firing of 46 President Barack Obama-era U.S. attorneys, failed attempts to defend the president’s immigration executive orders and Sessions’ recusal from an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Lawyers who’ve worked with Rosenstein, including superiors, subordinates and defense attorneys, say his no-nonsense leadership style and distaste for politics will help steer the Justice Department through the transition period. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland did not reply to requests for comment, but in interviews with nearly a dozen former colleagues and defense attorneys, Rosenstein, 52, comes across as a lawyer-manager who prioritizes efficiency, wants cases resolved expediently, values detail-oriented work and listens to opposing viewpoints.
“I can’t imagine a more difficult and challenging environment for someone to come in as DAG,” said Jason Weinstein, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson who served as Rosenstein’s violent crimes chief. “I also can’t imagine a person who is more equipped to handle that environment than Rod.”
The Russian investigation has added a political edge to Rosenstein’s otherwise noncontroversial confirmation process. As the No. 2 in the office, he will oversee the investigation in Sessions’ absence. When the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for Rosenstein April 3, the single ‘no’ vote came from Connecticut Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal opposed Rosenstein mainly for refusing to commit to appointing an independent prosecutor.
Still, many said politics simply don’t enter the equation for Rosenstein—a quality likely to be embraced by DOJ career staff who can become resentful of superiors politicizing their jobs.
“Political affiliation is irrelevant to my work,” Rosenstein said in his March 7 hearing.
Rosenstein was the only President George W. Bush-appointed U.S. attorney kept by the Obama administration, garnering respect from both sides of the aisle. Bipartisan letters supporting the nomination have piled up at the Senate Judiciary Committee from Democrats like retired Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Republican legal powerhouses like George Terwilliger.
A LAWYER’S LEADER
Rosenstein’s record and personality show a little of what lawyers can expect under him.
Despite the high level of power he’ll have over their practice areas, it’s rare that Rosenstein will interact directly with private practice attorneys—several officials would serve as filters before outside attorneys can hope of an audience with the DAG’s office. But if the case is big enough or there’s a major national interest, lawyers may be able to snag a few minutes with the DAG or his staff.
Those opportunities could be more numerous with Rosenstein. Former colleagues said that as a U.S. attorney, he invited defense lawyers into the office to talk through the issues in their case. Doug Gansler, a former Maryland attorney general and partner at Buckley Sandler, said he expects lawyers will continue to get hearings on important matters.
“There’s sort of this stereotypical notion that a Republican DOJ will be less open and transparent than a Democratic DOJ would be,” Gansler said. “I’d like to think that won’t be the case with Rod and that he is going to be a proponent of transparency and accessibility.”
But should a lawyer score an audience with Rosenstein in his new role, preparation is key.
“If you’re making a pitch for him for a particular resolution, you better be prepared and know the facts, because he will,” said Weinstein, who now practices in white-collar criminal defense. “And you better know them well, because he will. And you better do your homework, because he will have done his.”
Rosenstein also has no patience for inefficiency. As a U.S. attorney, he set a new standard to move lagging white-collar crime cases. If an attorney had a financial fraud case open too long, they had to justify keeping the case alive, Weinstein said. Rosenstein prioritized timely decision-making in white-collar investigations, not just to keep the office on track but because of the challenges those investigations pose for targeted companies.
“That was something that I appreciated at the time, but I appreciate now on a whole other level and I think that was visionary,” Weinstein said.
That sentiment likely won’t be limited to white-collar crime—Rosenstein told senators in his committee confirmation hearing that, when it comes to the massive case backlog plaguing immigration courts, he plans “to make sure we move things as quickly as possible.”
Those inside the Justice Department can expect Rosenstein to be just as much a manager as a lawyer. He’s been known to hand out guidebooks by management guru Peter Drucker to his assistant U.S. attorneys, and kept backup copies in his office. “But I learned a lot more from watching [Rosenstein] than I did from Drucker,” Weinstein quipped.
Gansler, who’s known Rosenstein for 20 years, said he’s unlikely to get bogged down micromanaging staff. Several former assistant U.S. attorneys said they enjoyed a degree of independence under Rosenstein. But if Rosenstein knows he’s right in a disagreement, he won’t shy away from confrontation.
“He calls ‘em as he sees ‘em,” Gansler said. “People like that. They like to know he’s a straight shooter.”
That being said, Rosenstein isn’t one for harsh words or brash outbursts. Michael Leotta, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, who worked under Rosenstein in Maryland, said he’s “never seen [Rosenstein] lose his temper in any circumstance.”
Even when facing off with defense attorneys, Rosenstein is “collegial,” said Robert Bonsib, a partner at MarcusBonsib who has tried a few cases against Rosenstein himself and dozens against his Maryland office.
“If you don’t agree with him or he does not agree with you, it won’t be personal,” Bonsib said.
A LIFELONG DOJ-ER
For Rosenstein, ascending to the deputy attorney general position is the culmination of a 27-year career in public service. He graduated from Harvard Law in 1989, interned for the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and clerked for Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington, D.C. Rosenstein then joined DOJ via the Attorney General’s Honors Program in 1990.
He’s stayed with the agency ever since, holding a variety of positions including counsel to the deputy attorney general, assistant U.S. attorney and U.S. attorney in Maryland. Rosenstein didn’t stray far from the DOJ in his personal life either. His wife, Lisa Barsoomian, is a former assistant U.S. attorney who he said “shares [his] affection for the Justice Department.” They live in the D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, with their two high school-aged daughters, Julia and Allison.
Rosenstein’s deep knowledge of the DOJ and its inner workings will be key for his new role. The DAG’s office is the only one that reports directly to the attorney general. Everyone else—including 93 U.S. attorneys, more than 100,000 employees and more than 20 component divisions of the agency—reports to the deputy attorney general.
The deputy is also charged with ensuring all relevant voices are heard in the department’s decision-making processes and upholding the department’s cultural values of fairness, respect for individual rights and more, explained Jamie Gorelick, who served in the role under President Bill Clinton. Gorelick is now a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, and has represented first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner, in various matters.
“[The deputy attorney general] is deciding both on policy issues … and, in addition to that, you are responsible for the decision-making on the hardest cases,” Gorelick said. “And those range from criminal cases arising out of any of the 93 U.S. attorneys offices to significant environmental cases or civil actions. So the span of control is huge.”
Between managing day-to-day operations, Rosenstein may have some time to work on policies important to him. For former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, that included criminal justice reform and ensuring individual accountability for corporate crimes.
Rosenstein is known for his pursuit of public corruption cases and crack down on gang violence in Maryland. That could be a strong fit under Sessions, who’s prioritized combating violent crime.
During his confirmation hearing, Rosenstein also said he would commit to making “robust enforcement of antitrust laws” a priority, noted his focus on combating opioid addiction in Maryland, and said he’s interested in making sure the DOJ keeps up with modern law enforcement technology.
Regardless of where he focuses his efforts, supporters say Rosenstein is a strong choice for the challenging post.
“Rosenstein knows [the DOJ] better than anyone else in his generation, because he has served it for his entire career and served in many different capacities including everything from being a line prosecutor to being in the management of the department,” Gorelick said. “He represents the best traditions of the department.”