Dispatch April 12, 2019

“Rod is a Survivor”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein just publicly backed Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the Russia investigation in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. His remarks shouldn’t come as a surprise: Rosenstein’s role in overseeing the investigation has been complicated, often oscillating back and forth between enabling the White House and backing Mueller’s probe.

Perhaps Comey summarized Rosenstein best when he told Ben Wittes of Lawfare, “Rod is a survivor… So I have concerns” about his stewardship of the Mueller probe. As Wittes added, “you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises.”

David Ignatius reported Rosenstein may have “blocked” the Mueller investigation from looking into Trump’s finances, preventing a real counter-intelligence investigation into the President.

  • Ignatius reported that “One government source speculates that Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, blocked any attempt to compel disclosure of the bank’s Trump file records to avoid getting himself or Mueller fired.”
  • Trump set a red line around his finances. Ignatius explains, “Trump was enraged by a December 2017 report that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had subpoenaed the bank’s records about its dealings with Trump.”
  • “The red line apparently held.” Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow told Reuters: “No [Deutsche Bank] subpoena has been issued or received.”

Was Rosenstein involved in Mueller’s denial of a critical Trump Tower Moscow story?

  • Rosenstein reportedly reached out to the Special Counsel’s office about releasing a statement contesting a BuzzFeed News report that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. The report stated that Cohen had informed the Special Counsel that “the president personally instructed him to lie” about the deal.
  • Mueller’s office disputed the story, an extremely uncharacteristic move for the famously quiet Special Counsel’s office that, for basically two years, had consistently refused to confirm or deny any story about the investigation.
  • That statement came under further scrutiny when Rudy Giuliani told CNN that Trump’s legal team had also reached out to Mueller in advance of the statement, which may have led House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler to ask then-Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker if there had been “any communication with the White House about the BuzzFeed report or the decision of the Special Counsel’s office to issue its subsequent statement.”

How did Rosenstein survive his September 2018 showdown with the White House?

  • On Friday, September 21, 2018, The New York Times reported that Rosenstein had suggested secretly recording the president and invoking the 25th Amendment following the firing of Comey.
  • The following Monday, Axios reported that Rosenstein had met with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and verbally offered to resign, with NBC reporting Rosenstein had made the decision “in anticipation of being fired by President Trump.”
  • After several hours of confusion—which the White House tried to exploit by calling for a pause to the Mueller investigation—Trump declared he would meet with Rosenstein later in the week. By the time the meeting was set to happen, Trump apparently came back around on Rosenstein, who stayed on as deputy attorney general.

What role is Rosenstein playing in Barr’s efforts to keep the full Mueller report hidden?

  • In his initial letter to Congress, Barr said he and Rosenstein had worked together on their highly questionable decision to clear Trump of obstruction of justice, a prosecutorial decision Mueller apparently explicitly declined to make and may have intended to leave to Congress.
  • In the lead-up to the end of Mueller’s investigation, Rosenstein made several comments that seem to indicate an openness to redacting damaging information from the report. This includes telling an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that “there are a lot of reasons not to be transparent about what we do in government” and that the Department of Justice has “no business making allegations against American citizens … if we aren’t prepared to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
  • Rosenstein also reportedly met with Trump last April to reassure the president he was a subject, not a target, of the investigation, a distinction that seems to portend both the eventual decision to clear Trump and an attempt to redact information in the report that may damage Trump.

Rosenstein wrote a letter at White House direction that was used as a pretext to fire James Comey.

  • Trump used a memo written by Rosenstein to justify firing Comey. Although Rosenstein later expressed frustration at being used to justify the firing, he initially defended it to Congress. According to Rosenstein, he wrote the memo a day after Trump sought his advice on the matter. Rosenstein stated about the memo “I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it.”
  • Rosenstein’s role in Comey’s firing sparked questions about whether he should have recused himself from the Russia investigation, especially after The New York Times reported that then-acting FBI director Andrew McCabe wrote that Rosenstein said Trump had specifically asked Rosenstein to mention the Russia investigation in the memo used to justify firing Comey.

Comey described Rosenstein as a “survivor.”

  • Comey reportedly wanted a Special Counsel because he believed that DOJ leadership, including Rosenstein, “would not be aggressive enough” to find “tapes” Trump may have made of their interactions. Comey stated that he “didn’t have confidence in” Rosenstein.
  • As Wittes noted, Comey’s reservations about Rosenstein “…were palpable. ’Rod is a survivor, [Comey] said. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. ‘So I have concerns.’”

As Aaron Blake of The Washington Post wrote, “Rod Rosenstein stuck his neck out for Trump” by writing the memo used as a pretext for firing Comey, and “now he’s doing it again for William Barr.” His recent statements do nothing to assuage the very real concerns about Barr’s conduct toward the Mueller investigation, and only intensify the questions about Rosenstein’s own behavior.