The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I can land the plane’: How Rosenstein tried to mollify Trump, protect Mueller and save his job

President Trump shakes hands with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, at the White House in October. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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, according to an administration official with knowledge of what was said during the call. “I can land the plane.”

Rosenstein-McCabe feud dates back to angry standoff in front of Mueller

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.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein on Feb. 25 suggested absolute transparency in Justice Department investigations could be “misleading." (Video: C-SPAN)

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 when 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 article, 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 fires back at critics over Mueller report

'My job is to stand here'

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 that 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.”

Barr under fire for news conference that was a boon for Trump

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.

Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade, who served with Rosenstein when he was a U.S. attorney in the Obama administration, said she considered Rosenstein “honorable.” But she said she was mystified that he would sign on to Barr’s decision that there was not a prosecutable obstruction case against Trump when Mueller pointedly would not say that.

“His name is included in the letter, and he stood by his side at the press conference, so somehow he got on board with that decision,” McQuade said. “It seems really strange to me.”

Others were more critical.

“I think Rod’s intentions were largely in the right place, but he was weak too many times when the country needed him to be strong,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman during the Obama administration. “He didn’t have to allow the attorney general to use his name in his letter and the press conference, but he has too often been willing to sacrifice his reputation to please people above him.”

A person close to Rosenstein said the deputy attorney general — in his dealings with Trump and others — sought to protect the investigation.

'I don't want to go out with a tweet'

Rosenstein’s status in the eyes of the White House has been fluid, but it was perhaps never more tenuous than after the New York Times reported he had suggested wearing a wire to record Trump.

After the article was published, then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly summoned Rosenstein to discuss it. The deputy attorney general would not address specific details of the article but told Kelly he was willing to step aside, two people familiar with the matter said. He talked about his long career at the Justice Department and his reputation, which he did not want Trump to tarnish, the people said.

“I can go. I’m ready to go. I can resign. But I don’t want to go out with a tweet,” the deputy attorney general said, according to one person’s account. Trump routinely makes significant personnel announcements via Twitter.

The person said Rosenstein left for another, regularly scheduled White House meeting but soon had a call with Trump. Even in the days that followed, his departure seemed so certain that the Justice Department lined up a succession plan. But Rosenstein ultimately met with Trump aboard Air Force One a few weeks later and remained at the Justice Department. He might do so almost up to the point his successor is confirmed.

From September: Rosenstein’s departure was imminent. Now he is likely to survive until after the midterms, officials say

Trump has nominated Deputy Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein. Rosen still needs confirmation by the Senate — which could come next month.

Rosenstein’s defenders say he is a prosecutor at heart, guided by doing what he thinks is right rather than which side of the political aisle will support him. They note that he has faced criticism from politicians of both parties and that the same people who now worry about him praised him for appointing Mueller.

“You had people drawing a red line around him to protect him in the beginning. Now those same people are going to say, ‘Oh, he’s a conservative hack,’ ” said James M. Trusty, a partner at Ifrah Law and a friend of Rosenstein’s. “In the future, as people look back, there’s lots of room for criticism on lots of things at the FBI and DOJ, but I think he’ll be acquitted nicely.”

The firing of Comey

Rosenstein was installed as the deputy attorney general in April 2017, and only a few weeks into his tenure, he confronted the crisis that would come to define it. Trump, upset over the Russia investigation, wanted to fire Comey, who would not say publicly that Trump was not a target of the Russia probe. After having advisers draft a letter firing Comey, the president was persuaded to talk to Rosenstein and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, according to Mueller’s report.

In a May 8 meeting with White House lawyers, Rosenstein and Sessions “criticized Comey and did not raise concerns about replacing him,” according to Mueller’s report. Later that day, in front of the president, Rosenstein described his concerns with Comey’s handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was in government, according to the report.

Notes from one participant in the meeting say that Trump told Rosenstein to draft a recommendation about the firing and to include in it that Comey had refused to say Trump was not personally targeted by the Russia investigation, according to Mueller’s report. Rosenstein, according to the notes, said that was not the basis for his recommendation, so he did not think Russia should be mentioned.

According to Mueller’s report, Rosenstein left the meeting and told others his reasons for replacing Comey were not the same as Trump’s. The next day, he turned in a memorandum saying the FBI was “unlikely to regain public and congressional trust” with an unrepentant Comey at the helm. Though the memo did not mention Russia, it offered Trump some political cover. The president fired Comey, and White House aides berated reporters who suggested the move was based on anything other than Rosenstein’s recommendation. The White House released Rosenstein’s memo to support Trump’s action.

Comey’s termination sparked a crisis at the FBI and Justice Department. The deputy attorney general believed the White House was misstating his role in the decision. FBI leaders — acting director McCabe in particular — grew distrustful of Rosenstein.

At a meeting that month, according to McCabe’s recollection captured in contemporaneous memos, Rosenstein suggested he could wear a wire to surreptitiously record the president and talked in passing of using the 25th Amendment to oust Trump from office. Rosenstein has generally disputed that account. But on May 17, he took the dramatic step of appointing Mueller as special counsel — giving the Russia investigation some measure of independence.

McCabe remained worried. At a meeting shortly after Mueller’s appointment, he and Rosenstein each suggested the other should recuse himself from the case, though neither did, people familiar with the matter have said.

Mueller’s report says the special counsel’s team interviewed Rosenstein on May 23 — making it one of the earliest conversations the team had with a witness. Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said career ethics officials at the department determined he did not need to recuse.

Trump was already incensed at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia case, and he would soon turn his ire on the deputy attorney general — deriding him as a “Democrat from Baltimore.” Rosenstein had been the U.S. attorney in Maryland during the Obama administration, but he is a Republican and lives in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington.

Conservative allies of the president, led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), pushed Rosenstein to turn over information on the Russia investigation and last April drafted articles of impeachment against him. Meadows and others also privately complained to Trump about his deputy attorney general.

For his part, Rosenstein publicly fought back, declaring at an event last May that the Justice Department was “not going to be extorted.”

But while he was sparring with Trump’s allies, the deputy attorney general was also maintaining the kind of workplace diplomacy that wins bosses’ favor. He frequently called and wrote letters to White House aides when they were in the news, or when they celebrated their birthday, people familiar with the matter said. He was recently spotted hugging the president’s personal assistant and other aides at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, and on Monday he was photographed at the White House Easter Egg Roll, waiting in line to greet one of the president’s closest advisers, Kellyanne Conway.

Philip Bump in New York contributed to this report.