Running the Justice Department presents a challenge in any administration. But the Trump era is different.
In just five months, Justice leaders have been under heavy pressure, on everything from the travel ban to the Russia investigation. And one man, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is bearing the weight.
Here’s something you need to know about Rosenstein: he’s worked at the Justice Department for his entire career, nearly 27 years.
Last year, Rosenstein told NPR the advice he gives younger lawyers.
“That the most important part of their job is to protect the brand,” he said.
“You know, it’s important to win cases, it’s important to solve crimes, but it’s more important that we maintain public confidence in the Department of Justice.”
Protecting the brand has gotten a lot more difficult. The Trump administration has shaken the foundations of federal law enforcement.
First, the attorney general recused himself from the investigation into Russian influence in last year’s elections. Then, the president fired the FBI director, citing a critical memo Rosenstein wrote, but later telling an interviewer it was because of the “Russia thing.” Then, Rosenstein appointed a special counsel to take over the Russia probe.
In the last couple of weeks, the president has floated the idea of firing that special counsel, Robert Mueller. But to do that, he’d have to go through Rod Rosenstein.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, asked him about that recently.
“If President Trump ordered you to fire the special counsel, what would you do?” Collins said.
Rosenstein replied: “Senator, I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders.”
That’s Rosenstein’s buttoned up version of saying: no way. But even his job seemed to be on the line last week, after the president tweeted his frustration about the course of the special counsel investigation. That investigation may widen to include possible obstruction of justice by Trump, for firing the FBI director.
“I think Rod is trying to protect the integrity in the investigation,” said former prosecutor Sol Wisenberg. “He’s obviously in a difficult situation. You have a president who doesn’t understand any of the norms in this kind of a situation, what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”
Wisenberg once worked worked closely with Rosenstein. They met during the investigation of the Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater, when Bill Clinton was president. Back then, Wisenberg said Rosenstein was a “straight arrow…a Jimmy Stewart type.”
“Actually Rod was generally a voice of reason, Rod was generally a person who counseled caution,” he said.
That sounds familiar to prosecutor Bonnie Greenberg, who worked for Rosenstein in Maryland.
“He follows the rules so much that when I went with him and his kids to the aquarium shortly after he started as U.S. Attorney, and the kids were like, ‘oh, can I get some water?’ I bought them some water when he was off doing something else and he insisted on paying me back,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg’s not just any employee who might be out a few bucks for some water. She first met Rosenstein in the late 1980s, when he would come to her office to visit with a paralegal named Lisa, the woman who later became his wife.
When he’s not interviewing U.S. Attorney candidates or testifying before Congress, friends said Rosenstein is usually driving his teenage daughters to soccer games.
This week, he named a top deputy and a chief of staff. Both men are Justice Department veterans. His friend Rory Little, a law professor in California, says he visited with Rosenstein a week ago.
“I’ve seen some comments on the Internet like, ‘how can he have any integrity? He should have resigned at this point or that point already,'” Little said. “You know, you don’t just walk away from a job because it’s hard. You don’t walk away from a job because it’s not necessarily going the way you thought.”
Little said people urging the deputy attorney general to quit need to take a long view.
“He’s doing important work and if he walks away from that job, there’s no telling who would be put into that job,” he added.