Rod J. Rosenstein, again, was in danger of losing his job. The New York Times had just reported that — in the heated days after James B. Comey was fired as FBI director — the deputy attorney general had suggested wearing a wire to surreptitiously record President Trump. Now Trump, traveling in New York, was on the phone, eager for an explanation.
Rosenstein — who, by one account, had gotten teary-eyed just before the call in a meeting with Trump’s chief of staff — sought to defuse the volatile situation and assure the president he was on his team, according to people familiar with matter. He criticized the Times report, published in late September, and blamed it on former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, whose recollections formed its basis. Then he talked about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and told the president he would make sure Trump was treated fairly, people familiar with the conversation said.
“I give the investigation credibility,” Rosenstein said, in the words of one administration official offering their own characterization of the call. “I can land the plane.”
The episode illustrates the political tightrope Rosenstein has had to walk in his two years as the Justice Department’s second-in-command. To keep his job, the deputy attorney general has worked to mollify an often angry Trump, while at the same time protecting the special counsel’s investigation of the president and his campaign. Rosenstein’s actions have come under renewed scrutiny, as he has played a key role in releasing Mueller’s findings in a way even some of his supporters say has been overly favorable to Trump.
In a statement for this article, Rosenstein said: “The only commitment I made to President Trump about the Russia investigation is the same commitment I made to the Congress: so long as I was in charge, it would be conducted appropriately and as expeditiously as possible. Everyone who actually participated in the investigation knows that.”
He added: “My relationship with the President is not one-dimensional. The Russia investigation represents only a fraction of my work and the work of the Department of Justice. I talk with the President at every opportunity about the great progress we have made and are making at the Department of Justice in achieving the Administration’s law enforcement priorities and protecting American citizens.”
A person familiar with Rosenstein’s account said the deputy attorney general disputes that he was teary-eyed in the meeting before the call with Trump. “He was reacting appropriately given the circumstances, which was a discussion about his forced resignation,” the person said.
But Rosenstein — whose representatives were approached for comment for this report earlier in the week — acknowledged in a combative speech Thursday night in New York that there were times during his tenure as deputy attorney general that he grew upset.
“One silly question that I get from reporters is, ‘Is it true that you got angry and emotional a few times over the past few years?’ Heck yes! Didn’t you?” Rosenstein said, deviating from his prepared script.
Trump ended the call with Rosenstein thinking he was “on the team after all,” one senior administration official said, adding that the president has been further swayed by Rosenstein’s deference in meetings and other settings.
On multiple occasions, according to people familiar with the matter, Rosenstein told Trump he was not a “target” of Mueller’s investigation — using law enforcement jargon that can refer to people about whom the Justice Department has gathered substantial evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Mueller’s report makes clear that investigators focused on Trump; his attorneys were informed he was a “subject,” a different bureaucratic term meaning his conduct was being investigated. And Mueller’s report details conduct that legal observers have said could constitute obstruction of justice.
Rosenstein also told the president more than once that he agreed Trump was being treated unfairly — though one person familiar with the matter said Rosenstein was probably referring to media coverage rather than the investigation itself. That person, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal government deliberations.
In his speech Thursday, Rosenstein launched a blistering attack on the media, an offensive likely to hearten Trump.
“Some of the nonsense that passes for breaking news today would not be worth the paper it was printed on, if anybody bothered to print it,” he said.
He also criticized the Obama administration for not publicizing the “full story” about Russian hacking and social media influence operations and cited a quote from Trump to make a point about the rule of law.
Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel after Comey’s firing, is no stranger to political blows — from the right, from the left and from the man who nominated him for the job. At the end of Mueller’s probe, though, Rosenstein might have been able to avoid some punches, since the ultimate decisions would be up to Attorney General William P. Barr.
Instead, he leaned in.
In rare public comments in recent weeks, Rosenstein has lauded Barr to Time magazine and derided as “bizarre” allegations that Barr was trying to mislead the public about Mueller’s work by glossing over the most serious findings about Trump’s behavior, as Democrats have argued.
Rosenstein stood behind the attorney general when Barr held a news conference to assert that the president had not colluded with Russia and that there was not a prosecutable case against Trump for obstruction of justice. The deputy attorney general’s unmoving gaze sparked speculation that he felt uncomfortable with what was happening; Barr, after all, was going further than Mueller had and repeatedly uttered one of the president’s preferred expressions — “no collusion.”
But Barr had written in a letter to lawmakers that he and Rosenstein had decided together there was not a prosecutable obstruction case, and a Justice Department official noted Rosenstein stepped away from a family vacation in Florida to be at the news conference. He flew back to Florida later that day, the official said.
Rosenstein said in his speech Thursday: “Last week, the big topic of discussion was, ‘What were you thinking when you stood behind Bill Barr at that press conference, with a deadpan expression?’ The answer is I was thinking, ‘My job is to stand here with a deadpan expression.’ ”
“Can you imagine if I did anything other than stand there at the press conference?” he added. “Imagine the reaction and the commentary if I had smiled or grimaced.”
Defenders of the special counsel’s probe had long viewed Rosenstein as one of the last bastions guarding the investigation. But Barr’s comments, in their view, misrepresented Mueller’s full report and seemed designed to protect the president. And Rosenstein was at least willing to go along with them. Continue: ‘I can land the plane’: How Rosenstein tried to mollify Trump, protect Mueller and save his job