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‘The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted’: Rosenstein responds to impeachment threat

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said on May 1 that “the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.” (Video: Newseum)

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein took aim Tuesday at Republican lawmakers who have drafted articles of impeachment against him, saying that he would not comment on documents “that nobody has the courage to put their name on” and asserting that he will not change his behavior in the face of threats.

“I think they should understand by now that the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted,” Rosenstein said. “We’re going to do what’s required by the rule of law, and any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job.”

Rosenstein’s comments came at the end of a wide-ranging conversation at the Newseum in Washington to commemorate Law Day, which happened to fall a day after The Washington Post reported that conservative allies of President Trump had drafted impeachment articles against the Justice Department’s No. 2 official.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) — have been in a long-running feud with Rosenstein and the Justice Department over what they see as a failure to turn over documents on a number of controversial topics, including the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

In recent days, they finalized a draft of the impeachment articles, which criticize Rosenstein for approving the warrant to monitor Page, and then failing to turn over requested documents.

Trump-allied House conservatives draft articles of impeachment against Rosenstein as ‘last resort’

In a statement, Meadows said Rosenstein’s “response to the draft articles of impeachment is reminiscent of our interactions with him over the past few months: a lot of rhetoric with little facts.”

“If he believes being asked to do his job is ‘extortion,’ then Rod Rosenstein should step aside and allow us to find a new Deputy Attorney General — preferably one who is interested in transparency,” Meadows said.

The Freedom Caucus is one of the more influential blocs in Congress, though to impeach Rosenstein, its members would need the buy-in of House or Judiciary Committee leadership, and then they would have to win over a majority of members. Removing Rosenstein would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate — which would be nigh impossible.

Critics see the move as an effort to pressure the Justice Department to turn over documents it shouldn’t, or detract from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election. Rosenstein supervises that probe, because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from it. The deputy attorney general has in recent weeks become a particular focus of the president’s rage.

Rosenstein for the most part avoided addressing that and other controversial topics Tuesday.

Asked in tangential ways about Trump’s recent threats to get more involved at the Justice Department, in part over his anger at Mueller’s probe, Rosenstein insisted that Justice Department officials were complying with the rule of law and that “there are no such conflicts” between that and demands by the president.

He refused to put a timeline on Mueller’s probe, but said of all investigations, “we recognize the need to move them as expeditiously as possible.”

Rosenstein declined to address whether he believed a sitting president could be indicted, noting only that Justice Department lawyers had opined in past administrations that the president could not.

Rosenstein’s most substantive comments, though, came on the Justice Department’s feuding with several congressional committees over document requests. Rosenstein noted that, throughout American history, the Justice Department had sparred with legislators wanting documents, and while there was “actually not a constitutional basis for oversight,” he found legislators’ role to ferret out misconduct important.

He said some of his predecessors had refused to turn over any FBI documents, though the courts had in past disputes instructed the two sides to “try to compromise.”

He said he would work out disputes with Congress on a “case by case” basis. In recent weeks, the department had seemed to reach agreements with several committee leaders, including those in charge of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. The committees are seeking materials on a range of topics, including the warrant to surveil Page and the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

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“If we were to just open our doors to allow Congress to come and rummage through the files, that would be a serious infringement on the separation of powers, and it might resolve a dispute today, but it would have negative repercussions in the long run, and we have a responsibility to defend the institution,” Rosenstein said.

Asked about the articles of impeachment, Rosenstein quipped, “they can’t even resist leaking their own drafts,” and then compared the document to one the Justice Department seeks in charging someone with a crime.

“We have to affix our signature to the charging document,” he said, adding later, “I just don’t have anything to say about documents like that, that nobody has the courage to put their name on, and that they leak in that way.”

Rosenstein also on Tuesday addressed a question that has long vexed members of the D.C. press corps: Should his last name be pronounced Rosen-steen or Rosen-stine?

“So, there’s no right answer to that question,” Rosenstein said, to laughter. “My family, my father, pronounces it ‘stine.’ That’s how I pronounce it. But I actually have relatives who pronounce it ‘steen,’ so I’ll answer to either one.”