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Rod Rosenstein faces new scrutiny for approving surveillance of Trump associate

Less than a year after leaving Maryland with a reputation for staying above the political fray, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein was thrust again into the maelstrom Monday after a report indicated he approved the continued surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser.

The former U.S. attorney for Maryland, who served in that job under presidents of both parties, extended the surveillance of Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, according to a controversial congressional memo described by The New York Times.

It was the latest indication that Rosenstein, a career prosecutor who many feel has tried to avoid politics, had become a lightning rod in the public relations war to influence Americans’ view of the probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. He has, at various times, enraged and pacified members of both parties — sometimes over the course of a few days.

Rosenstein, who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump and became the No. 2 official at the Justice Department in April, named Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel the following month to lead the Russia probe. After Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on the Russia matter, Rosenstein became the top Justice official overseeing the investigation.

“He’s a mystery to Washington and he probably frustrates people who expect more political behavior from him,” said James M. Trusty, a former Department of Justice official and assistant U.S. attorney in Greenbelt. “He’s not the type of person to worry about self-preservation. He wants to do it right.”

The memo, crafted by congressional Republicans, asserts that Justice Department officials failed to explain to an intelligence court that their decision to seek the extended surveillance relied on research by Christopher Steele, an investigator who had been financed by Democrats, according to The Times.

Democrats have blasted the memo as political. Trump’s Justice Department also has voiced concerns. In a letter to House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes last week, Justice officials said releasing the memo could be “extraordinarily reckless” and asked to review it.

Some senators have expressed concern about the memo’s release as well. But John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican and a member of that chamber's intelligence committee, said last week that Nunes and the Justice Department need to work out their differences.

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted Monday night to make the memo public. Trump now has five days to decide whether he wants to do so.

Members of the Trump administration have indicated a preference for releasing the document, which is based on classified information, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the president had not made a final decision about whether to support that move.

Asked by reporters whether Trump continues to have confidence in Rosenstein, Sanders answered indirectly.

“As I've said, when you guys ask this question about a number of individuals, when the president no longer has confidence in someone, you'll know,” she said.

Sanders denied that the White House had applied pressure on Rosenstein.

“The only thing that the president has applied pressure to is to make sure we get this resolved so that you guys and everyone else can focus on the things that Americans actually care about,” she said.

Reports of Rosenstein’s inclusion in the memo came as the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, stepped down ahead of a planned retirement later this year. McCabe had been assailed repeatedly by Trump after it was revealed his wife accepted campaign contributions from the political action committee of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat and close ally of Hillary Clinton, during a failed state Senate run.

The FBI has said McCabe received the necessary ethics approval before his wife received the donations.

Rosenstein, 53, previously has come under even more direct fire from the White House. Trump told The New York Times in an interview in July that he was unhappy with Rosenstein, saying that “there are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any.”

Rosenstein, who is a Republican, was initially appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland in 2005 by then-President George W. Bush and was kept in the job by President Barack Obama. Rosenstein was born in Philadelphia and lived in Bethesda while he served in Maryland.

A month earlier, Trump posted on social media that he was “being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” a reference to Rosenstein. “Witch Hunt."

He faced pressure from Democrats, as well, after crafting a memo the White House initially used to justify the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Much of that criticism was quieted after he named Mueller as special counsel. Trump later told NBC News that he would have fired Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s memo.

The Senate voted 94-6 to confirm Rosenstein last year. The only ‘no’ votes came from Democrats.

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the report Monday.

“This stuff that President Trump is doing, criticizing the prosecutors, is unprecedented,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Rosenstein is not just going to fall over.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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