Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen had calmly fended off more than a dozen questions — some of them about the criminal justice reform legislation he had planned to discuss, others on various controversies of the day — and begun to walk away from the stage. His first news conference as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official was nearly behind him.
Then a Fox News reporter asked how he felt about the House of Representatives’ vote this week to hold Rosen’s boss, Attorney General William P. Barr, in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena related to the administration’s failed effort to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.
Rosen returned to the lectern.
“We’re talking about what is, unfortunately, the crassest form of political theater, and from where I stand, I’m deeply disappointed that the House leadership would proceed in that way, with something that is so obviously beneath the dignity of the offices they hold,” Rosen said. “It’s really a new low for the current House of Representatives.”
The forceful comments were notable for an understated official who — since being confirmed to his post in May — has largely steered clear of the political drama that seems to constantly envelop the department. Throughout the news conference, Rosen had assiduously avoided saying anything revelatory on topics other than the one he was there to discuss: implementation of the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill.
But on contempt, he leaned in.
“It’s not too late to reverse course,” he said. “The House of Representatives could reconsider, revoke its action and apologize to the attorney general, and that’s what they should do.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the chair of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement: “Subpoenas are not optional. The Attorney General and Commerce Secretary violated a criminal statute when they refused to comply with a bipartisan subpoena from Congress. The Oversight Committee is trying to determine how and why the Trump Administration spent more than two years trying to add a citizenship question to the census based on a false pretext. The Supreme Court ruled that this effort was illegal, and we intend to get to the bottom of what happened.”
The relationship between Congress and the Justice Department had been fractured long before Rosen stepped to the stage Friday. Lawmakers have repeatedly accused the department of supporting the Trump administration’s bid to stonewall their requests for documents.
Tensions reached a boiling point this week when the House of Representatives voted along party lines to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt over the census controversy .
The vote will have little practical effect. Those found in criminal contempt are referred to the Justice Department for prosecution, and it is not likely to prosecute its own boss. But the move has nonetheless rankled department leaders, who assert they have turned over thousands of documents to lawmakers and are withholding only those deemed privileged.
Rosen noted Friday that the Supreme Court already stopped the citizenship question from being added to the census, and asserted the House had no real reason to investigate further.
“We’re talking about a matter, the census, in which the Supreme Court has already ruled and we’re done,” Rosen said. “So, the House has not identified some compelling legislative need for this. To the contrary, this makes no sense at all.”
On other contentious topics, Rosen was far more circumspect.
Asked if prosecutors’ closing the investigation into former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s campaign finance violations meant that Trump had been “cleared of any wrongdoing,” Rosen responded, “The only thing I can say about that is that it was handled by experienced prosecutors who looked at the law and the facts and made their conclusions on the merits.”
Asked if he or Justice Department leadership in Washington had played a role in the prosecutors’ conclusion of the case, and whether Justice Department guidance that sitting presidents cannot be indicted had any impact, Rosen said, “I don’t have anything to add to what I just said.” The House Oversight Committee on Friday requested similar information from federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which handled the Cohen case.
Of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony next week, Rosen merely pointed to what Mueller has said publicly.
“Special counsel Mueller held a news conference some weeks back where he indicated his report was his testimony, so I think it would be reasonable to assume or expect that he meant what he said,” Rosen said.
Notably, Rosen would not commit to making public the results of an internal Justice Department investigation into the handling of financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s 2008 plea agreement, which has come under significant scrutiny in recent weeks as Epstein has been indicted on new sex trafficking charges. “I don’t have anything I want to share on that today,” Rosen said.
The agreement allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two state charges and spend just 13 months in jail, with work release privileges. It was approved by then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, who resigned as Trump’s labor secretary amid new controversy over the arrangement.
A Justice Department official said after the news conference that the results of such investigations are generally made public when they are complete, and officials did not “see any reason” that would not be the case here. Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote in a letter to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in February that the department would share the results with him “as appropriate.”
Rosen spoke on the contempt vote for about two minutes, and then — after calling on Congress to apologize — left the stage for a second time. Again, he was tailed by a question, this one from a CNN reporter.
“Or, you could hand over documents, right?” the reporter asked.
Rosen did not respond.