The Justice Department official overseeing the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia insisted on Tuesday that he wouldn’t be intimidated by suggestions from conservative Republican lawmakers that he be impeached for defying requests for congressional oversight.
“There have been people that have been making threats, publicly and privately, against me for quite some time, and I think they should understand by now: The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said during an appearance at the Newseum in Washington. “Any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job. We have a responsibility and we take an oath. That’s the whole point.”
Rosenstein did not chronicle the threats he was addressing, but he has often been the focus of public and private anger from President Donald Trump, who has blamed him for launching special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation last May.
Just a few weeks ago, Trump took to Twitter to take a direct shot at the Justice Department’s No. 2 official. “Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy,” Trump wrote. And just last week, Trump suggested during a TV interview that he’d like to remove Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, but probably wouldn’t until Mueller’s investigation was complete.
During the question-and-answer session on Tuesday marking “Law Day,” the mild-mannered Rosenstein could not resist a swipe at whoever was behind a version of proposed articles of impeachment of him being circulated by GOP lawmakers and published in The Washington Post.
“They can’t even resist leaking their own drafts,” the deputy attorney general said. “I saw that draft. I mean, I don’t know who wrote it. It really does illustrate, though, a really important distinction between the way we operate in the Department of Justice — if we’re going to accuse somebody of wrongdoing, we have to have admissible evidence and credible witnesses. We need to be prepared to prove our case in court. … We have people who are accountable. And so I just don’t have anything to say about documents like that that nobody has the courage to put their name on.”
Rosenstein has clashed with GOP lawmakers over demands that the Justice Department hand over records related to the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server as well as the FBI’s Russia inquiry. Democrats worry that the tension over documents is a pretext for Trump to oust Rosenstein and assert more control over the Mueller investigation.
The articles drafted by Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and other Freedom Caucus allies accuse Rosenstein of multiple transgressions, including failure to follow surveillance laws, remove staff with conflicts of interest and produce documents to Congress in a timely way.
Many of the questions asked on Tuesday were like a minefield for Rosenstein, urging him to weigh in on a variety of issues that could land him in more hot water with Trump, lawmakers or others.
When one questioner asked the deputy attorney general whether or not a sitting president could be indicted, the longtime prosecutor pointed to a Justice Department opinion that says the president cannot be charged criminally while in office. But Rosenstein did not explicitly endorse that legal view.
Warning the audience that it “shouldn’t draw any inference” from his answer, Rosenstein said: “The Department of Justice in the past, when the issue arose, has opined that a sitting president cannot be indicted. There’s been a lot of speculation in the media about it. … When the issue arose, somebody in the department reached a legal conclusion and that’s what it is.”
Rosenstein gave a cryptic answer when asked for his thoughts on the decisions made by top Justice Department officials in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special counsel, Archibald Cox.
Rosenstein noted that Richardson and Ruckelshaus said they resigned because of a pledge Richardson had given the Senate that he would not dismiss Cox and not because they considered Nixon’s directive to be illegal.
“To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t an unlawful order. I think Richardson, Ruckelshaus and Bork all made what they thought were principled decisions,” Rosenstein said, referring to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who carried out Nixon’s order.
As in past speeches, Rosenstein insisted that the Trump administration was adhering to the rule of law. He even praised a “Law Day” proclamation extolling the virtue of the rule of law. Such statements from Rosenstein have drawn mockery from his critics and even some of his friends, who point to Trump’s repeated public calls for jailing his political opponents, his public demands for criminal investigations and his talk of shutting down Mueller’s investigation.
“There is no doubt by anybody in the Department of Justice that we are complying with the rule of law,” Rosenstein said. “I think the morale of the attorneys of the department is very high.”
And despite repeated reports of Trump’s weighing in with the department on specific investigations, Rosenstein asserted that both Justice officials and those at the White House were abiding by longstanding limits on such discussions.
“We have certain rules about what we can and can’t discuss,” he said. “I can assure you that we are faithful to those rules, as is the White House.”
Rosenstein also said that while there were sometimes tensions involved in his job, he was not convinced he was a witness to an exceptional time in U.S. history.
“Everybody always thinks that the current moment is an unprecedented moment,” he said, “but it really isn’t.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.