With Jeff Sessions recusal, the widely admired nominee for deputy attorney general could be dropped into the thick of the Trump administration controversy
As a young justice department lawyer, Rod Rosenstein was tapped to join Kenneth Starrs Whitewater investigation into Bill and Hillary Clintons real estate dealings. He showed an uncommon skill with public corruption cases, demonstrating a wisdom and sensitivity beyond his years, his supervisors said.
Now Rosenstein, who made his reputation as a competent, apolitical US attorney who served both Bush and Obama, may investigate another presidents ties to an even more high-profile scandal.
The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, pledged on Thursday he would recuse himself from overseeing any investigations of Russias role in the 2016 election. I should not be involved in investigating a campaign I had a role in, he said, a decision that came after bipartisan pressure from Congress over his failure to disclose two meetings with Russias ambassador during the election year.
Sessions recusal could immediately put Rosenstein into a much higher-profile position than he might have imagined when he was nominated to serve as deputy attorney general. If confirmed, he would oversee any justice department investigation into Russian interference in the election including any contacts between Russia and members of the Trump campaign.
Rosenstein, who is currently the US attorney in Maryland, was a surprising choice to serve as the No 2 official in Trumps justice department, said Philip Heymann, who was Rosensteins law professor at Harvard, and later his boss in the Clinton justice department. Rosenstein has served in the Department of Justice for 26 years, including in the tax division, the public integrity section, and as an assistant US attorney in Maryland.
Rosenstein is a skilled prosecutor and a straight shooter, with a deep knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the department, but he did not seem particularly close to either Sessions or Trump, Heymann said.
It surprises me that they didnt pick somebody who was more partisan, he said.
James Cole, who served for four years as Eric Holders deputy attorney general, also offered unqualified praise for Rosensteins skill and credibility.
He doesnt make any decisions that either are or appear to be political, he said.
Questions on the Russia investigation are likely to be at the center of Rosensteins confirmation hearing on Tuesday. He declined to comment.
Some observers have noted that during the Nixon administration, Senate Democrats used the confirmation process of Nixons attorney general pick, Elliot Richardson, as leverage and refused to confirm him for the job until he named a special prosecutor to oversee the Watergate investigation. Senate Democrats could take a similar approach to Rosensteins confirmation and demand a special prosecutor on Russias interference in the 2016 election, the Intercept suggested on Thursday.
On Sunday night, Richard Blumenthal, one of the Democrats on the Senate judiciary committee, vowed on Twitter that he would use every possible tool to block DOJ Deputy AG nominee unless he commits to appoint [an] independent special prosecutor.
Heymann said both Democrats and Republicans would trust Rosenstein and that he was the perfect person to oversee an investigation into Russias interference in the US election an issue both Democrats and Trump have framed, in different ways, as an inquiry that strikes at the heart of Trumps legitimacy as president.
I think were very lucky to have him in that position, he said.
In February, the Baltimore Sun, Rosensteins hometown paper, called him an honorable public servant with wide bipartisan support who was too good to sell his soul by taking a job in the Trump administration.
Just dont go there. Say no to President Trump, a member of the Suns editorial board advised Rosenstein in an open letter.
Former colleagues praised Rosensteins restraint. He understands that the justice departments role is to do justice rather than bring cases, said Steve Levin, a former federal prosecutor who worked for Rosenstein in Baltimore. Even as he rose into a politically appointed position, he kept the approach and the attitude of a career prosecutor, Levin said.
He is very professional and very determined to be the best prosecutor that he can be and he doesnt take that to mean the most aggressive prosecutor, Heymann said.
Heymann, a longtime justice department official, worked with the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald, Cox on the investigation that led to Nixons resignation, and was also part of investigations into Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He said Rosensteins lack of a close relationship with Trump or Sessions could, paradoxically, make his job overseeing any investigation of Russian interference harder.
I think hes in an incredibly difficult position. Ive learned over many, many years its easier to be independent if youre a close friend of the president than if youre not, he said, explaining the importance of having a presidents trust. I would anticipate that the White House would be very worried about anybody that they didnt know well.
As Marylands US attorney, Levin said, Rosenstein has gone after corrupt police officers and prison guards as well as violent gang members. This week, his office announced the arrest of seven Baltimore police officers for racketeering.
Rosenstein has also worked to crack down on national security leaks, announcing charges last fall in a high-profile case against a National Security Agency contractor for stealing classified information.
In response to questions about Russias interference in the election he won, Trump has repeatedly argued that the real scandal is not the attempt of a foreign power to sway an American election, but the national security leaks that have made new angles of the issue public.
Rosensteins predecessor as US attorney in Maryland sparked complaints that he was unfairly targeting Democrats in public corruption cases using his office as a political weapon. Rosenstein brought more stability to the office. When he has gone after public officials as US attorney, he did it an even-handed and a fair way, said Cole, the Obama justice official.
The deputy attorney general is the justice departments chief operation officer, with wide responsibilities for overseeing litigation, crime-fighting strategy, and the federal governments national security policy. If confirmed, he will end up in the situation room a lot, Cole said.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions made no mention of the two meetings he had with Russias ambassador during the election year, even when asked directly if he had been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election. Saying the attorney general appeared to have lied under oath, some Democrats are continuing to demand that he resign. Sessions said that he should have mentioned the meetings with ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but that he did not recall any specific political discussions.