Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended his handling of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation on Monday, calling James Comey a “partisan pundit” even as he said the former FBI director’s firing by President Donald Trump should have been handled “with far more respect and far less drama.”
Rosenstein, whose eventful term as the Justice Department’s second-in-command officially ended on Saturday after last week’s formal send-off at DOJ headquarters, spoke about his handling of the investigation of the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election during a speech before the Great Baltimore Committee on Monday evening.
May 17 marks the two-year anniversary of the day Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel after Comey’s May 9, 2017, firing. It was Rosenstein who wrote a memo supporting a change in leadership at the FBI due to the way Comey oversaw the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices during her tenure as secretary of state.
Referring to Comey’s handling of that probe, Rosenstein said Monday that “while there are many issues in our line [of work] in which a range of decisions may be reasonable, there are bright lines that should never be crossed.” He criticized Comey’s July 2016 press conference in which he explained why Clinton would face no charges, and then his high-profile letter to Congress just days before the election explaining the brief reopening of the case.
“Those actions were not within the range of reasonable decisions,” Rosenstein said. “They were inconsistent with our goal of communicating to all FBI employees that they should respect the attorney general’s role, refrain from disclosing information about criminal investigations, avoid disparaging uncharged persons, and above all, not take unnecessary steps that could influence an election.”
Rosenstein said that the White House gave “confusing explanations” for Comey’s firing, but that nobody told him that the action “was intended to influence the course of my Russia investigation.”
He said Trump showed him a letter laying out the president’s reasons for firing Comey, but that Trump “did not tell me what reasons to put in my memo.” Rosenstein said he wouldn’t have handled Comey’s firing the same way.
“If I had been the decision maker, the removal would have been handled very differently, with far more respect and far less drama,” Rosenstein said.
“So I do not blame the former director for being angry,” Rosenstein said. “But now the former director is a partisan pundit, selling books and earning speaking fees while speculating about the strength of my character and the fate of my immortal soul. That is disappointing. Speculating about souls is not a job for police and prosecutors. Generally, we base our opinions on eyewitness testimony.”
Rosenstein was referring to Comey’s recent remark that he believed Rosenstein was a person of accomplishment, but not of strong character.
Rosenstein said his soul and character “are pretty much the same today as they were two years ago.”
As Trump and his allies continue to argue that the Russia investigation was started based on a “hoax” and represented a “coup attempt against the president, Rosenstein said the probe was justified based on what he knew in May 2017, and that “closing it was not an option.”
From Rosenstein’s remarks:
People spend a lot of time debating whose side I was on, based on who seemed to benefit most from any individual decision. That is because partisans evaluate things in terms of the immediate political impact, and cable TV pundits fill a lot of time by pretending there is always serious breaking news. But trying to infer partisanship from law enforcement decisions is a category error. It uses the wrong frame of reference.
Political affiliation may influence law enforcement policy decisions. That is the point of elections.
But when it comes to foreign election interference, like the tens of thousands of other cases I supervised over the past three decades, I was always on the same team. I was on the American team.
He also said: “I took a few hits and made some enemies during my time in the arena, but I held my ground and made a lot of friends. And thanks to them, I think I made the right calls on the things that mattered.”