Rosenstein Ready to Leave Once Attorney General Confirmed, Source Says
(Bloomberg) -- Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, is expected to leave the Justice Department after a new attorney general is confirmed, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has no concrete plans to depart and will stay on to help with the transition, said the person who asked not to be identified.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that President Donald Trump isn’t trying to push out Rosenstein, adding that he is probably “making room” for Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr.
Rosenstein, 53, has always planned to stay about two years as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official and respects Barr, the person said.
But the prospect of Rosenstein leaving worried some lawmakers because of the uncertainty it may create for the Mueller investigation.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters that Rosenstein’s departure “only raises the stakes” for Barr’s confirmation hearings next week. The Senate should subject Barr’s views “to the strictest of scrutiny,” Schumer said.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017 after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe and Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Under Rosenstein, Mueller expanded the Russia probe, which includes whether anyone close to Trump conspired with Russians and whether the president sought to obstruct justice.
However, Rosenstein’s role in the Russia investigation has been reduced since Trump appointed Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in November. Whitaker now has ultimate authority over Mueller and the investigation, although Rosenstein continues to be the main Justice Department official to interact with Mueller and receive updates on the probe.
Some Justice Department and other administration officials believe Mueller’s investigation is winding down and that he will soon give the Justice Department his final report. Mueller hasn’t given any indication when the investigation will end.
Rosenstein, whose readiness to step down was reported earlier Wednesday by ABC News, is a career law enforcement official whose service has spanned several presidencies. He served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland from 2005 to 2017. He was one of the few Republicans that President Barack Obama kept on as a U.S. attorney.
But Rosenstein has had a rocky tenure at the Justice Department, particularly because of his role overseeing Mueller and the Russia investigation.
He has been derided by Trump in tweets railing against the investigation that the president calls a “witch hunt.” And he’s tangled with House Republicans over providing them access to sensitive documents that they say will show the Russia probe was tainted early on by anti-Trump bias. Some House Republicans even introduced articles of impeachment against Rosenstein last year.
“There are people who have been making threats, privately and publicly, against me for quite some time,” Rosenstein said at a Law Day event last year in Washington. “I think they should understand by now the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted. We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law.”
Rosenstein’s survival was seen as especially problematic after the New York Times reported in September that he suggested he could secretly record Trump. The Times also said Rosenstein discussed encouraging cabinet members to invoke the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office.
Rosenstein disputed the report and he appeared to patch over any tensions with Trump following a meeting between the two in October.
Rosenstein also riled some of Trump’s Democratic critics early in his tenure in 2017, when he wrote a controversial letter outlining the case for firing Comey, saying he made “serious mistakes” in his handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Trump cited Rosenstein’s letter in firing Comey, although the president later said it was because of the Russia investigation.
Rosenstein joined the Justice Department in 1990 and has been viewed inside the department and by former officials as a respected public servant, credited with helping reshape the department’s priorities even as he stood up against the Republican lawmakers criticizing him and the department.
Trump nominated Barr for attorney general in December, weeks after Sessions resigned at Trump’s request. Sessions had become a target of the president’s open contempt for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
After ousting Sessions, Trump installed Whitaker, chief of staff at the Justice Department, as acting attorney general, which put him in charge of the Russia probe. Whitaker, a critic of Mueller’s investigation, now has the power to fire the special counsel or curb his inquiry.
If confirmed, Barr would be in charge of Mueller, unless he too recused himself.
Barr’s confirmation has become controversial, however. Top Justice Department officials have sought to downplay his previous argument that the president can’t be investigated for obstructing justice. Key Senate Democrats have questioned whether he can objectively oversee Mueller’s probe in light of that position and his expansive views on executive power generally.
In advance of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings next week, Barr was scheduled to meet with key senators on Wednesday.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Wednesday that Barr told him he doesn’t consider Mueller’s probe a witch hunt and will let him complete his work, “erring on the side of transparency” in considering whether to share it with Congress and the public. But he also said Barr stood by his concerns about charging a president with obstruction of justice.
“They’ve been personal friends for over 20 years,” Graham said of Barr and Mueller, and their wives attend Bible study together.
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