Rod Rosenstein was facing a friendly crowd.
It was a Monday night in mid-May, and he was leaning over a stark white lectern inside a Hyatt Regency hotel in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A collection of local civic and business leaders had just presented him with a public service award, and the suits in the seats would have understood if he offered a few bland thanks before slipping off into the evening. But he was comfortable enough with his surroundings to address the elephant in the room instead.
"It's nice to be in Baltimore," Rosenstein said as a wry grin crossed his face. "And it's really nice not to be in Washington, D.C., for a few hours." The room broke into knowing laughter. He was barely a month into a job that should have been a pinnacle for a longtime federal prosecutor – deputy attorney general of the United States – but things had already started to go sideways.
A friend sent him a cryptic text message on his 10th day in office: You need to get out of there. Rosenstein assured the audience that he gamely wrote back, "There is no place I would rather be." Despite his practiced coolness, the week leading up to this appearance had been surreal and unnerving, and the days ahead would center around a political bombshell that put a bull's-eye on his back.
The cloud that hung over President Trump's wild gallop to the White House – the question of whether his campaign had colluded in 2016 with the Russian government – was looming larger and more ominously than ever before. Six days earlier, Trump had fired James Comey, the director of the FBI, which had been probing the Russia allegations for month. It was a seismic move that sent a chill through Washington and channeled ghostly echoes of President Richard M. Nixon's infamous Saturday Night Massacre.
The White House quickly noted that Trump had acted on the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, who'd penned a scathing memo about Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server. That was the official story, but it didn't hold for long, thanks to Trump's propensity to shoot from the hip at all times. A day later, he reportedly bragged to Russian diplomats that firing Comey had removed "great pressure." It was an odd remark, but the true red flag would come during an ensuing interview with NBC News, when Trump explained that he'd actually decided to jettison Comey before consulting Rosenstein, because he'd concluded that "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."
Since Sessions had already recused himself from all matters involving Russia, it fell to Rosenstein to respond – and he saw only one solution. He appointed a special counsel, the widely respected former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to get to the bottom of everything: Trump, Russia, the election, and any other issues that "arose or may arise."
That decision thrust the bookish Rosenstein, 52, onto the national stage, a 24/7 circus of breathless rumors and endless media speculation. The bombastic Trump has thrived in that chaotic maelstrom for decades, but it couldn't be more foreign to Rosenstein, whose 27-year career has been marked by an aversion to the spotlight, a fervent devotion to the Justice Department's black-and-white ideals, and a steadfast commitment to the apolitical rule of law.
If Trump tries to fire Mueller or undercut his investigation – as his public comments increasingly suggest – it will again fall to Rosenstein to stand in his way. During an interview July 21, Rosenstein said preserving the public's confidence in the Justice Department is his highest mission, one that's "critically important" to the state of our union. But he shies away from discussing hypotheticals.
More than a dozen former colleagues, friends and political figures interviewed by the Inquirer and Daily News say that Rosenstein is the right man for the job amid all of this uncertainty, that beneath his suburban-dad demeanor and Capraesque earnestness lie a steely resolve and an unshakable commitment to doing what's right, outside pressures be damned.
"If you care about the country," one former Justice Department official says, "you want Rod Rosenstein to be there."
Contrary to a recent Trump tirade about Rosenstein's being from Baltimore – "there are very few Republicans in Baltimore. So, he's from Baltimore," he lamented – Rosenstein was born in Philadelphia. And he's a Republican.
When he was a toddler, his family moved to the suburbs, settling in a quiet neighborhood of split-level houses and tidy lawns in Lower Moreland. His parents, Robert and Gerri, instilled old-fashioned values — work hard, be honest, treat others with respect — that carried him from Lower Moreland High School to Penn's Wharton School, which also counts Trump as an alum.
At Harvard Law, Rosenstein caught the attention of one of his professors, Philip Heymann, who had once been a top assistant to Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. "He was very straight, very proper," Heymann, now 84, says. "Prosecutors can be surrounded by ethical dilemmas. Are you going too far or not far enough? Rod was very concerned about the propriety of those decisions."
While Rosenstein was quietly studying the intricacies of law, Trump was at the peak of his swashbuckling Atlantic City casino and hotel mogul days. He cemented his name as a brand synonymous with business savvy with a bestselling book, The Art of the Deal, even as he simultaneously pursued a series of reckless financial deals that would result in a string of bankruptcies.
Rosenstein was hired by the Justice Department in 1990, and started out prosecuting public corruption cases. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton tapped Heymann to be his deputy attorney general, and Heymann called on a handful of sharp legal minds to join the office, including Rosenstein and his mentor, a Justice Department lifer named David Margolis.
Sandra Cavazos was Heymann's special assistant, and remembers being struck by the way Rosenstein carried himself. "He had ambition, but in a humane way," she says. "D.C. is full of people who look to step over everyone else on their way to the top. That's not Rod. I feel like he was made for the deputy attorney general role."
Rosenstein got his first taste of a megawatt political scandal in 1995, when he joined Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation into murky Arkansas real estate deals that involved the Clintons and a number of their associates. As part of the case, Rosenstein spent a year in Little Rock, working on the federal prosecution of former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
"There were a lot of politically charged issues," says Julie Myers Wood, who was the lead prosecutor on another one of the Whitewater indictments. "Rod always had the voice of reason."
No charges were ever brought against the Clintons, but Starr continued to relentlessly pursue the administration in his role as an independent counsel. He ultimately unearthed the president's affair with the intern Monica Lewinsky, which inspired U.S. House Republicans to launch an ill-fated impeachment attempt in 1998.
Rosenstein had moved on from Starr's Whitewater team by the time the Lewinsky scandal went nuclear, but Trump closely followed the developments from his perch as a playboy celebrity. During an interview with Fox News at the time, Trump argued that Starr's investigation was "a terrible thing" and that Clinton was "a victim himself." He was also critical of women who'd been linked to Clinton's philandering. "The whole group, Paula Jones, Lewinsky, it's just a really unattractive group. I'm not just talking about physical."
Looking back on that era, did Rosenstein gain any useful insights about politics and a president's power — or lack thereof — to evade an investigation? "That's an interesting question," he says, leaning back in a chair at the end of a long, mahogany-colored conference table in his office on the fourth floor of the Justice Department's Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters. He's wearing a dark suit, a green patterned tie and rimless glasses, and his short hair is neatly parted to the side.
He talks in brisk, lawyerly paragraphs, and pivots now to a lengthy explanation of the legal difference between an independent counsel, like Starr, and a special counsel, like Mueller, who has to answer to Rosenstein. But then he circles back to Whitewater: "The short answer is, I did learn a lot."
For an official who's ever conscious of not saying something that could trigger a breaking news alert, this feels like going out on a limb.
Trump experienced a career rebirth in 2004 with the launch of The Apprentice, the reality TV show that gave the world his brash, finger-jabbing trademark slogan: "You're fired!" In an interview with Esquire that year, he also riffed, Walter Mitty style, on how things might go if he was ever in charge of the country.
Rosenstein, meanwhile, was nearing the end of a four-year run as the principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Tax Division, where he oversaw complex investigations into white collar fraud.
He was creeping toward middle age, but didn't seem to be obsessed with chasing any particular brass ring. He and his wife Lisa had settled into a quiet life in Bethesda with their daughters, Julia and Allison. Instead of rubbing elbows with judges and politicians at black-tie affairs, Rosenstein would invite coworkers to his house to chow down on takeout. Around the office, he was known as the guy who would check to make sure everybody had a ride home at the end of a holiday party.
"He's like a good neighbor," laughs Megan Brown, who worked for Rosenstein in 2000. "He's patriotic and idealistic, but he's not naive. I don't want to make him sound too much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but that's sort of how I picture him. He's not concerned about himself."
In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Rosenstein as U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. He stayed in the job through the end of Bush's second term, and then was retained by President Barack Obama for another eight years.
You can count on one hand the number of U.S. attorneys who survived that long under both administrations, a fact that suggests all of the former colleagues I spoke to aren't blowing smoke when they hail Rosenstein as an honest-to-goodness straight arrow who keeps his personal politics out of the office.
Rosenstein's time as U.S. attorney demonstrated, time and again, that his ideology boils down to holding everyone accountable to the same set of rules, a worldview that was honed during Whitewater and would resurface when Comey was fired. Politicians weren't afforded special protections, and neither were those in law enforcement. Under Rosenstein, the office indicted seven Baltimore police officers on robbery and extortion charges; in another instance, 18 corrections officers were indicted for helping to smuggle drugs and cell phones into a state prison.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became a fan of Rosenstein while she served as the Democratic mayor of Baltimore from 2010 to 2016. She found him to be genuinely committed to helping the city drive down its violent crime rate by having federal prosecutors work more closely with local authorities.
"Personally, I'd hoped that he wouldn't be so quickly tarnished by the current administration," Rawlings-Blake tells me. "It was disappointing for me to see that. I think his goal is just to add his experience and expertise to an administration that everyone can clearly see is desperate for people who can actually do the job."
Working in the Trump administration seems like a job that few qualified people want. CNN reported in June that Trump had only submitted 111 nominees for 1,100 or so high-level government positions that require Senate approval; only 41 have actually made it through the approval process so far. And there have been high-profile resignations, like Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, who told the New York Times that the administration has left the country "pretty close to a laughingstock." The unfilled jobs worry those who have done the kind of anonymous, behind-the-scenes work that keeps the government functioning.
The Senate voted, 94-6, on April 25 to approve Rosenstein, less than three months after Trump officially nominated him for deputy attorney general. Friends believe that Rosenstein felt compelled to accept the deputy attorney general job because he realized, in part, that the Justice Department needed a steady hand. "I literally sent Rod an email saying, 'Thank you for taking this job,' " says Cynthia Monaco, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Rosenstein in the early '90s. "I felt better that a career prosecutor with the highest integrity was in that position."
The good vibes didn't last long.
Rosenstein's Comey memo remains a source of curiosity, even several months later. At first glance, it seems hard to reconcile; was he really pushing for Comey to be fired? And why would he bother writing a memo if Trump had already made up his mind?
Monaco and other former federal prosecutors I spoke to were unanimous in their belief that Rosenstein wrote the three-page document of his own accord. It's clear, reading through it now, that Comey had offended the sense of propriety that Phil Heymann saw in Rosenstein back in the 1980s.
Rosenstein denounced Comey for holding a news conference last July to proclaim that Hillary Clinton wouldn't be criminally charged over her mountain of missing emails. "It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement," Rosenstein wrote.
Comey had shared "his own conclusions about the nation's most sensitive criminal investigation, without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders," he continued, adding that Comey had also violated other department protocols by releasing "derogatory information" about someone who wasn't being indicted. And worse yet, he did all this in front of the news media.
For a man who has worshiped at the altar of rules and regulations throughout his career, these were egregious errors. Rosenstein even backed up his assertions by quoting a host of past attorneys general who shared his sentiments. The FBI wouldn't regain the public's trust, he concluded, until it had new leadership.
"Comey just went completely off the reservation," says Eileen O'Connor, who was Rosenstein's boss when she was the assistant attorney general for the Tax Division in the early 2000s. "Rod very clearly explained how he transgressed. I was similarly appalled — and I know Comey."
During a closed-door briefing with congressional leaders on May 19, Rosenstein argued that his memo was not meant to justify Comey's firing. But he didn't walk back any of his criticisms, either. "I wrote it," he said. "I believe it. I stand by it."
Still, once Trump had claimed publicly that his feelings about the validity of the Russia investigation factored into his decision to terminate the FBI director, the matter took on another dimension. Rosenstein had no choice but to bring in a special counsel. And Trump, of course, hit the roof.
Lately, Trump has directed his Twitter venom at Sessions, terming him "beleaguered" and "VERY weak" on "Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!" It is a baffling sight, to put it mildly; Trump nominated both Sessions and Rosenstein for their positions, but rails against them as if they'd been foisted on him by a third party.
"Every time [Trump] tries to make an investigation go away, he just creates a new one," Monaco says. "Rod's trying to analyze the situation and decide what he has to do based on what case law says he should be doing. The challenge here is, I don't think the president understands the processes of law enforcement."
The gnawing sense that another shoe will drop – that Trump will drop the ax on Sessions, or turn up the heat on Rosenstein – is now nearly inescapable. There's a corrosive effect when a president constantly question or belittle his own top officials. Yet during our interview, Rosenstein looks unworried. He has a job to do, and that's his singular focus. "I think we let the work speak for itself," he tells me.
He appeared before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in mid-June, and was asked how he'd respond if Trump instructed him to fire Mueller. He responded that Mueller could only be fired for good cause, something he'd have to validate in writing. "If there were not good cause," he added, "it wouldn't matter to me what anybody says."
Since then, Trump's attorneys and aides have reportedly been searching for information that could discredit Mueller and his team of investigators. If he can't tweet Mueller's investigation out of existence, he can still stir up unrest among his base, and create headaches in the halls of the Justice Department.
Heymann, the Watergate survivor, says he was impressed by the fortitude his former law school student showed by appointing Mueller and then publicly stating that he wouldn't fire him. "They were two very brave things, because each of them is more than adequate to make Trump want to fire him," he says. "Rod is in deep political waters."
John Ashcroft, who served as attorney general under Bush, is among those keeping tabs on Rosenstein from afar. The two men share a mutual admiration, and Rosenstein has a portrait of Ashcroft hanging in his office. "The job is easier when you're devoted to principles," he says in a soft Missouri drawl. "The people who survive in the long run don't get up every morning and wonder, 'Is this a day when I compromise my principles or not?' "
Rosenstein's days begin on a sobering note, with national security briefings and a round-up of foreign intelligence surveillance applications.
"I meet with our team to talk about what the threats are," he says. "It's a big department. We have 115,000 employees who are doing a lot of different things, and every aspect of it is important in some way."
But it's difficult to get anyone outside of his department's headquarters to focus on its other duties. Rosenstein and Sessions appeared at a press conference together on July 20, the day before I traveled to Washington to sit down with Rosenstein. They announced a significant blow against criminal enterprises that lurk in the hidden recesses of the dark web, but were only peppered with questions from reporters about a surprising interview Trump had done with the New York Times, where he repeatedly blasted Sessions for having recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
It's unclear how close Sessions and Rosenstein are, but as they stood before that pack of reporters, they looked like two men stranded together on island surrounded by sharks. Desperate circumstances can breed a sense of camaraderie, if nothing else.
During our interview, Rosenstein takes time to carefully explain some of the policies Sessions has enacted that have sparked intense criticism, like revamping the Justice Department's civil-asset forfeiture practices, and ordering its Civil Rights Division to review consent decrees and reform agreements signed with police departments across the country during Obama's administration.
While opponents say Sessions has made it easier for police to sidestep local legislative restrictions on civil asset forfeiture, Rosenstein argues that the issue has been misconstrued. "The new policy … has additional protections, the most significant of which are that we're going to have federal government lawyers review every seizure," he says. "I anticipate that is going to eliminate most of the cases in which there would be claims of abuse."
He rebutted the idea that police misconduct would be overlooked, but acknowledged that Sessions believes consent decrees have hampered police departments' ability to fight crime. "If there's actual evidence of criminal violations of people's civil rights, we should be prosecuting the officers who are responsible," Rosenstein says. "I was very aggressive about that as U.S. attorney in Maryland. During my tenure, I'm pretty sure we prosecuted more law enforcement officers in the history of Maryland in any 12-year period."
The conversation drifts, as it always does, back to the president and the Mueller probe. The developments pile up at a dizzying pace, from Donald Trump Jr.'s self-published emails that showed an eagerness to meet with a Kremlin-connected attorney and others last summer with the promise of receiving damaging information about Hillary Clinton, to Jared Kushner's testimony before a Senate Intelligence Committee.
While it must be frustrating for a buttoned-up official like Rosenstein to contend with the ceaseless public speculation, Trump relishes the attention and eagerly courts more controversy. He tweets about his pardoning powers, gripes about the possibility that Mueller might look into his personal finances, and derides the whole saga as the "phony Russian Witch Hunt."
He uses his social media reach to delegitimize anyone he considers to be a threat, twisting objective facts like balloon animals into an unrecognizable jumble. In Trump's eyes, journalists, the FBI and foreign intelligence experts are all untrustworthy actors in a grand conspiracy.
So how crucial is it for Rosenstein – and America – to have Mueller conduct a full investigation, without any interference? "If you look at my history in the department, that's always been a really important thing to me, that we promote and preserve the public's confidence in the Department of Justice," Rosenstein says.
"What we do here is not about politics. People are going to comment on what we do, people are going to criticize what we do. Sometimes they're going to compliment us on what we do. But it can't affect what we do. And so, we need to make sure that we don't react to everything that's said about us in the media. That's an important part of the job – the restraint."
Rosenstein walks out of his office and into the hallway, where portraits of 27 past deputy attorneys general are stationed across three shelves, a not-so-subtle reminder of the impermanence of the position. He eyeballs an empty space that will be filled at some point with a photo of Sally Yates, who held the job toward the end of Obama's second term. She was fired by Trump in January, after she refused to defend his controversial travel ban.
"She left in a hurry," he says.