WASHINGTON ― Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s tentative plan to resign in the coming months is ratcheting up lawmakers’ concerns ahead of next week’s confirmation hearing for William Barr, the man President Donald Trump has nominated as the nation’s 85th attorney general.
Rosenstein, who spent his career at the Department of Justice before Trump nominated him as DOJ’s No. 2 official, had come under fire from the president after he named Robert Mueller in May 2017 as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. Rosenstein, who had written a memo supporting the dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey based on the premise that Comey had treated Hillary Clinton unfairly during the 2016 campaign, had more recently clashed with Trump after reports he made comments about overthrowing Trump or secretly recording him shortly before Mueller’s appointment.
A person familiar with Rosenstein’s thinking told HuffPost that there’s currently no concrete, specific plan in place for Rosenstein’s resignation but said he’s expecting to depart after Barr’s confirmation. Rosenstein, the person said, was not being forced out and had always thought he would be in the high-octane position of deputy attorney general for about two years.
Barr’s confirmation as attorney general ― a position currently occupied on an acting basis by Matthew Whitaker following the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions ― would ensure a smooth transition, the person said. Rosenstein’s tentative plan to depart after Barr’s confirmation was first reported by ABC News.
Rosenstein’s willingness to leave DOJ could be read as another sign that the Mueller probe is winding down ahead of an anticipated report laying out the evidence investigators have uncovered about Russian election interference and the Trump campaign.
But Rosenstein’s anticipated departure may come before the penultimate step in the Trump-Russia probe: the decision on whether to make that report public or turn it over to Congress. That could leave the decision in the hands of Barr, who has expansive views of executive power and wrote an unsolicited memo to Rosenstein in June 2018 knocking Mueller for probing whether the president’s firing of Comey was obstruction of justice.
Barr, now 68, served as the 77th attorney general during George H.W. Bush’s administration, assuming the position at the age of 41. Barr, a conservative steeped in the law-and-order politics of the early ’90s, began meeting with senators on Capitol Hill on Wednesday ahead of his confirmation hearing scheduled for Tuesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters that Barr talked to him about his relationship with Mueller, including the fact that their wives are in a Bible study group together and Mueller has attended two of Barr’s daughters’ weddings. Barr, Graham said, told him he didn’t think Mueller was on a “witch hunt,” as Trump has branded the Mueller probe. Barr said he would go through the process of determining whether the Mueller report could be shared with Congress and the public when the report is finished, according to Graham.
The expected departure of Rosenstein, who had previously enjoyed bipartisan support and was kept in his role as Maryland’s top federal prosecutor during the Obama administration, has heightened Democratic concerns ahead of the Barr hearing.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who had backed legislation to protect the Mueller probe, said Rosenstein’s presence at DOJ “has been reassuring to many of us who are concerned about the independence of the special counsel’s investigation.” Coons said in a statement that it was “critical” that Barr “make clear during his hearing that he is committed to the rule of law and that he will not allow President Trump to interfere with the Mueller investigation.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Rosenstein’s planned departure is going to “really raise the stakes” of Barr’s confirmation hearing next week, while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that he believes Trump should withdraw Barr’s nomination.
Republicans, of course, control the Senate with 53 votes, so ― barring some huge revelation ― Barr’s confirmation doesn’t appear to be in any real jeopardy. But Democrats will use the hearing as an opportunity to extract commitments from the nominee about his approach to the Mueller investigation.
One likely point of contention is whether Barr would commit to following the guidance of DOJ’s career ethics officials on whether he should recuse himself from the Mueller probe given his prior stances. Whitaker ― a critic of the Mueller investigation whose appointment to the role has come under legal scrutiny ― disregarded ethics officials’ recommendation that he recuse himself from the Mueller probe when he took over as acting attorney general. Whitaker hadn’t received any briefings on the Mueller probe as of Dec. 20, but it’s unclear whether that’s changed in the past few weeks.