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Rosenstein fires back at critics over Mueller report

Attorney General William P. Barr on April 18 discussed the release of the redacted report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller's investigation. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein hit back hard against politicians and the press Thursday night, and warned that hacking and social media ma­nipu­la­tion are “only the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to Russian efforts to influence American elections.

Speaking at the Public Servants Dinner of the Armenian Bar Association, Rosenstein unleashed his sharpest critique yet of those who have attacked his handling of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigative report into Russian election interference and President Trump’s conduct.

Rosenstein’s speech, probably one of his last as a senior Justice Department official, marked his first public comments since the release of the report, and he did not hold back in discussing his tumultuous two years as the No. 2 at the Justice Department. During that time, he was castigated by both Republicans and Democrats for a variety of decisions. In the speech, Rosenstein reflected on his time on the job, spoke positively of Trump’s commitment to the rule of law and criticized the press.

A redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report was released to the public on April 18. Here's what's in it. (Video: Brian Monroe, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

He also said that, even after the Mueller report documented Russian interference in the 2016 election, that is only a small part of the story.

“The bottom line is, there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord, and undermine America, just like they do in many other countries,” Rosenstein said.

Mueller report lays out obstruction evidence against Trump

Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, and has overseen the investigation since. Now that Mueller’s work is over and Trump has nominated someone else to be the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, Rostenstein is expected to leave the job as early as next month.

In his speech, Rosenstein critiqued Congress, politics and the media, and defended the Justice Department as an institution whose mission is to rise above partisanship and focus on facts.

“I do not care how police officers, prosecutors and judges vote, just as I do not care how soldiers and sailors vote. That is none of my business. I only care whether they understand that when they are on duty, their job is about law and not politics,” said Rosenstein, who has worked at the Justice Department for decades.

“There is not Republican justice and Democrat justice. There is only justice and injustice,” he said.

In his speeches, Rosenstein often refers positively to Trump, and he did so again on Thursday, a week after the Justice Department issued nearly 200 pages of findings documenting instances in which prosecutors and federal agents were concerned the president might have obstructed justice.

Ultimately, Mueller did not make a determination as to whether the president broke the law, based partly on the Justice Department’s long-standing policy that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime while in office. Attorney General William P. Barr reviewed Mueller’s findings last month and declared that both he and Rosenstein had determined the president had not obstructed justice.

“The rule of law is our most important principle,” Rosenstein said. “As President Trump pointed out, ‘We govern ourselves in accordance with the rule of law rather [than] … the whims of an elite few or the dictates of collective will.’ ”

The deputy attorney general recalled that at his confirmation hearing, he made promises about how the Russia investigation would be handled.

“I did pledge to do it right and take it to the appropriate conclusion. I did not promise to report all results to the public, because grand jury investigations are ex parte proceedings. It is not our job to render conclusive factual findings,” he said. “We just decide whether it is appropriate to file criminal charges.”

Leading up to the release of the Mueller report, Rosenstein had argued against too much transparency, citing Justice Department policies that generally don’t reveal derogatory information about people who have not been charged with a crime, according to people familiar with the discussions. Ultimately, Barr decided to publicly release more.

Rosenstein insisted the investigation had been conducted fairly and conscientiously, and that as a result, “our nation is safer, elections are more secure, and citizens are better informed about covert foreign influence schemes. But not everybody was happy with my decision, in case you did not notice.”

He denounced what he called “mercenary critics, who get paid to express passionate opinions about any topic, often with little or no information. They do not just express disagreement. They launch ad hominem attacks unrestricted by truth or morality. They make threats, spread fake stories and even attack your relatives.”

Rosenstein also took some shots at the press.

“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. “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?”

He also tried to joke off questions that emerged over his appearance last week at Barr’s press conference ahead of the release of the Mueller report, in which he appeared ashen-faced.

“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.’ ”

The audience applauded.

“Can you imagine if I did anything other than stand there at the press conference? Imagine the reaction and the commentary if I had smiled or grimaced,” Rosenstein said. “But you cannot avoid criticism. The only way you can avoid criticism in public service is if you stay home. But somebody actually has to do the work, and therefore you have to accept the criticism that comes with the job.”

The evening’s other honoree was Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct. Rosenstein chatted with the others at his table and checked his phone as Tembeckjian unleashed a steady stream of criticism against the administration’s immigration policies. The crowd applauded as Tembeckjian warned of the path to tyranny and celebrated his own family’s history as undocumented immigrants from Armenia.

Tembeckjian also earned some laughs at the president’s expense, after mentioning Rosenstein’s pending departure from government.

“I can tell by the absence of Secret Service,” he said, “that the person most eager to see him leave is not here tonight.”

Barrett reported from Washington.