Democrats once saw Rod Rosenstein as their best hope to ensure the FBI carried out an unflinching and impartial investigation into alleged contacts between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.
Rosenstein’s intimate involvement in the stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey this week has imperiled the reputation he established as a fair broker — a reputation that earned him U.S. attorney appointments under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The deputy attorney general scrambled Thursday to try to assuage those concerns, but several prominent Democratic lawmakers went public with their dismay at Rosenstein’s role in Comey’s abrupt ouster.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Chris Murphy all sent clear signals to Rosenstein that he’d done damage by preparing the three-page memo the Trump White House used to justify getting rid of the FBI chief, despite the bureau’s ongoing Russia probe.
“I’ve now read Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo three times. With each read I’ve become more troubled by the contents of this unusual document,” said Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the Justice Department and the FBI.
Democrats had hoped Rosenstein would keep an eye on the Russia investigation, and Schumer said when Rosenstein was confirmed to his position at the Justice Department in March that he had agreed to appoint a special prosecutor in the case if necessary. Now, Democrats are publicly questioning his judgment.
Rosenstein’s aides privately reached out to Schumer for a meeting, but Schumer declined because he wanted Rosenstein to meet with all senators, one source familiar with the interaction said. Schumer said Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to invite Rosenstein to brief all senators on Comey’s firing next week, an invite McConnell has since sent. There was no immediate word whether Rosenstein would accept.
The memo, which Rosenstein wrote at Trump’s request after he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to the White House on Monday, said Comey had done serious damage to the FBI’s reputation through his handling of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email account, which she used as secretary of state.
Titled “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI,” Rosenstein laid out the case that Comey violated Justice Department policies by closing the Clinton email probe last July without consulting prosecutors, by making a public statement about the evidence “as if it were a closing argument,” and by alerting Congress to the re-opening of the probe in October when new emails were found.
“It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do,” Rosenstein wrote. His memo quoted various former Justice Department officials op-eds and TV appearances faulting Comey’s conduct.
The No. 2 DOJ official’s memo was attached to a brief letter from Sessions sent Tuesday to the president, who fired Comey that day.
White House officials initially cited Rosenstein’s memo as their basis for Comey’s dismissal, but the president later acknowledged he’d already decided to fire the FBI chief regardless of DOJ’s stance on the matter. “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC News.
Democrats had already expressed suspicion at the explanation. “There is widely reported skepticism that the reasons laid out in your memo are the real basis for the President’s decision to fire Director Comey,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Rosenstein dated Wednesday.
“Instead of a document that provides meaningful analysis, the memo reads like a political document,” Feinstein said Thursday before Trump’s comments.
Amid the growing scrutiny, Rosenstein was seen arriving Thursday at the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, where he met with Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chairman and vice chairman.
On his way out after, Rosenstein said he had no plans to leave his job, despite reports he warned the White House against continuing to pin Trump’s decision to fire Comey on him.
“No. I’m not quitting,” he told reporters, according to video posted by Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Asked whether he had threatened to resign, Rosenstein said simply: “No.”
But a source briefed on the situation said Rosenstein remained furious with the White House about its handling of the episode.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said there was no point in threatening to resign.
“Threatening to quit is meaningless, Mr. Rosenstein,” Murphy wrote on Twitter. “You wrote a memo you knew would be used to perpetuate a lie. You own this debacle.”
Several former federal prosecutors also were withering in their criticism of Rosenstein and his memo.
“Rod Rosenstein is a useful patsy,” said Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman, a former Comey adviser. “If you have principles and you think you’re being used, you resign.”
Former federal prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig said the three-page memo lacked rigor.
“It’s a compendium of other people’s opinions rather than his own,” Rosenzweig said. He pointed out that the memo doesn’t quote or even cite any of the policies Comey allegedly violated, nor does it account for exceptions Comey said applied or address past disclosures that Comey claimed set precedent for his unusual actions.
“The letter does not have great evidence of having been fully staffed through a process in the Department of Justice,” said Rosenzweig, an ex-prosecutor and former Department of Homeland Security official.
Sessions has not commented directly on the criticism of Rosenstein, but he praised him Thursday in a speech in West Virginia on efforts to rein in opioid abuse, calling him “my great deputy attorney general” and saluting his quarter-century of service as a federal prosecutor.
It remains to be seen how Rosenstein will handle the key remaining question: whether to appoint a special counsel to pursue the Russia inquiry, as Democrats have demanded.
Sessions has recused himself from issues pertaining to Trump and Russia, so that decision remains in Rosenstein’s hands for now, although Schumer and Feinstein want him to pass off the sensitive call to a career official at Justice.
The White House has dismissed calls for a special prosecutor. “We don’t think it’s necessary,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday.
Sol Wisenberg, a former deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater probe, said Sanders’ comments put Rosenstein in an awkward position.
“If I was Rosenstein, I’d be troubled by it,” Wisenberg said. “If he makes the decision he can handle it himself and that a special counsel wasn’t necessary, it makes that looks suspect.”
Seung Min Kim, Michael Crowley and Ali Watkins contributed to this report.