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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Played Key Role In Comey's Firing

May 10, 2017
Originally published on May 10, 2017 8:42 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

When President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he pointed to a memo written by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. It outlined actions taken by Comey that Rosenstein argued hurt the reputation of the bureau. NPR's Tamara Keith has this look at the man who wrote the memo.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Rod Rosenstein is a career Justice Department attorney who just two weeks ago was confirmed by the Senate as deputy attorney general with overwhelming bipartisan support. Before that, he was the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, starting during the George W. Bush administration and serving all the way through President Obama's two terms. It was an unusually long tenure for a U.S. attorney because political appointees rarely outlast the presidents who picked them. At his confirmation hearing, he spoke of himself as above partisanship.

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ROD ROSENSTEIN: Political affiliation is irrelevant to my work. Our goals of preventing crime and protecting national security require us to work cooperatively with all partners, to be vigilant and to be proactive. We also need to be role models.

KEITH: The stakes were high for Rosenstein before he was even sworn in. The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from all matters related to Trump's presidential campaign and Russia. That meant his deputy would take the lead. As a result, questions about Russia, like this one from Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, dominated Rosenstein's confirmation hearing.

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RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: How can you investigate your boss?

ROSENSTEIN: If there is evidence, Senator, that the attorney general and the president have information relevant to criminal investigation in this case, as in previous cases that I've handled, I'll make sure they're questioned. I've done that before. I've been involved before in questioning a president of the United States.

KEITH: What Rosenstein was referring to there is his time during the Clinton administration as associate independent counsel on the Whitewater investigation. Now, just two weeks into his tenure, Rosenstein is at the center of a political firestorm with questions swirling about whether the president fired Comey to stymie the FBI's investigation into his campaign. Democrats say Rosenstein's independence has been compromised while administration officials are holding up his reputation and memo about Comey like a shield. Here is Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders at today's press briefing.

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SARAH SANDERS: This guy is a man of upstanding character and essentially the gold standard at the Department of Justice.

KEITH: Questions remain. Was Rosenstein asked to help the president justify firing Comey, or did he on his own feel that removing Comey was necessary and bring his recommendations to the president? And why now, months after the end of the Clinton email investigation?

GREGG BERNSTEIN: It's not unreasonable, in fact, almost expected that the public would question the timing of this.

KEITH: Gregg Bernstein is a partner at the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder and has known Rosenstein for years. He says timing aside, his friend was clearly appalled by Comey's actions in the Clinton investigation.

BERNSTEIN: Mr. Rosenstein was deeply troubled by that, and that's certainly what the memo reflects.

KEITH: Bernstein sees the principal prosecutor he knows in the three pages of that memo.

BERNSTEIN: I think it's pretty clear at least what his motivation was, what his thoughts are on the subject. I can't speak for the rest of the administration.

KEITH: At his confirmation hearing, Rosenstein said he was guided by mentors and friends who taught him to ask the following three questions first.

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ROSENSTEIN: First, what can we do? Second, what should we do? And third, how will we explain it?

KEITH: In the firing of James Comey and the circumstances around it, Rosenstein and others in the Trump administration have more explaining to do. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.