There could be a side benefit for Rod Rosenstein in appointing a special counsel to head an investigation into possible Russian coordination with the Trump campaign: reviving his own reputation, heavily battered for his role in the firing of James Comey, who had been leading the probe.
The Wednesday decision to name former FBI Director Robert Mueller, an apolitical outsider, to oversee the case seemed intended to restore public faith in an independent Justice Department following a series of headache-inducing headlines. But Rosenstein’s own professional standing could start to recover as well.
“He appointed Mueller because he was cognizant enough to understand whether or not he thought he could be fair in the investigation was irrelevant,” said Steven Silverman, a Baltimore attorney who has known Rosenstein for years. “The important part is the public perception of the Russia investigation.”
“Kudos for him for recognizing that appearances are equally important as a fair and just process and investigation,” Silverman added.
At his March confirmation hearing for the deputy attorney general job, Rosenstein refused to commit to the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, saying he was aware of no requirement to recuse himself and had no first-hand knowledge of the probe anyway.
Much has changed since then.
There have been growing questions from Democrats about the ability of Justice Department leaders to carry out the probe independent of the White House.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in March after acknowledging undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, leaving the matter in Rosenstein’s hands.
Rosenstein himself in the last week has come under intense criticism as the author of a memo that chastised Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email case, which the White House initially cited as justification for the firing.
President Donald Trump later acknowledged that he had already thought about dismissing Comey and had been perturbed by “this Russia thing,” fueling criticism that Rosenstein’s memo merely served as a pretext so the president could fire Comey amid an aggressive investigation into his campaign.
The timeline was further muddled Thursday when Democrats emerged from a closed-door meeting with Rosenstein saying he knew Comey would be removed prior to writing the memo, even as Trump insisted again that he had gotten a “very, very strong recommendation” from Rosenstein.
No matter the reason for the firing, public outcry mounted for Rosenstein to appoint an outsider to oversee the probe. It was an unusual spot for the veteran prosecutor, who cultivated a reputation as an apolitical law enforcement official.
Rosenstein has publicly denied being conscious of his reputation, telling a Baltimore business group this week: “I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. There is nothing in that oath about my reputation.”
“After my 10th day on my new job in Washington, DC, a friend sent me a text message that said, `You need to get out of there!”’ Rosenstein said. “I said, `There’s no place I’d rather be.”’
Yet there’s no question that Comey’s firing at least temporarily hobbled Rosenstein’s public standing. Friends and former colleagues say it’s been tough to see him in such a difficult spot, especially when they consider him upright, impartial and an unlikely political pawn.
“It is difficult to see a friend of yours being in the middle of that,” said Jan Paul Miller, a St. Louis attorney who worked with Rosenstein when both were assistant U.S. attorneys in Maryland. “You’ve got the talking heads pontificating about someone I know well, when they don’t know him at all and they don’t have all the facts. They have no problem slamming him. … That’s hard to watch.”
Rosenstein, who was appointed US attorney by President George W. Bush and held the job for the entire Obama administration, didn’t immediately embrace the idea of a special counsel while facing persistent questions from Democratic senators at his confirmation hearing.
Yet the appointment increasingly seemed the only viable option, particularly following this week’s revelation that Comey took notes on a February meeting with Trump in which he said the president had asked him to shut down an investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.
Rosenstein acknowledged as much, saying in a statement Wednesday that the “public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
The selection of Mueller, a taciturn former federal prosecutor who led the FBI through the Sept. 11 attacks, received bipartisan embrace. He has served presidents of both political parties and, after taking the director job days before the Sept. 11 attacks, oversaw the FBI’s terrorism-fighting efforts over the next decade.
But anyone hoping a special counsel appointment means the public will ultimately hear a full accounting of the investigation might be disappointed.
Unlike his unusually candid predecessor Comey, Mueller is a notoriously tight-lipped investigator.
He was appointed under a rarely used statute that requires him to report the findings of his investigation to Rosenstein in a confidential report. It’s up to Rosenstein to decide whether to make details public. He is required to tell Congress when the probe concludes, but publicly revealing anything beyond that is up to Rosenstein’s discretion.
Details may come out in court in the event of an indictment, but that may be less likely if the probe closes without criminal charges.
Rosenstein already made known how he feels about investigators discussing closed cases, in his memo blasting Comey for publicly discussing the closed Clinton email investigation even when it did not yield charges.