Rod Rosenstein talks about his time as Maryland U.S. Attorney just before his confirmation as Deputy Attorney General for the Justice Department. (Baltimore Sun video)
On a wall behind his desk, between a family photo and a courtroom drawing from the Whitewater probe, outgoing Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein has looked to a quote to help define his management philosophy.
"Don't tell me what I want to hear," the plaque reads. "Just tell me what I need to know."
Rosenstein says the motto will be even more important as he heads to Washington to be the second-in-charge at the U.S. Department of Justice. He will oversee more than 100,000 employees who have a hand in counterterrorism, civil rights and high-profile criminal cases across the nation.
Rosenstein's confirmation won broad, bipartisan support Tuesday in the Senate despite reservations from some Democrats concernedabout the department's handling of investigations into interactions between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia. Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from that matter, Rosenstein will have to decide whether to appoint a special prosecutor.
"One of the things that is a danger when you get in a position of authority is that people tell you what they think you want to hear," said Rosenstein, 52. "As I move into a position where I'll deal with a lot of people I don't know, that's a great danger."
Rosenstein reflected on his 12 years as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland in an interview last week in his corner office in Baltimore, which has dual views of the Bromo Seltzer Tower and a sliver of the Inner Harbor. During his tenure he was hailed for building strong partnerships with local law enforcement agencies and winning major cases against gang members, politicians, police and corrections officers.
Known as an apolitical operator, Rosenstein was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005 and was kept on by President Barack Obama.
"I hope that our cases will not just stand on their own, but will help drive change, so that we'll deter people from committing crimes and will change the circumstances so it's less easy to commit crimes," he said.
Asked how he survived shifting political winds, Rosenstein said: "I do my job without regard to partisan political consideration."
Yet Rosenstein will enter the job at a time when the Justice Department has been repeatedly thrust to the political forefront. Democrats are still seething over FBI Director James B. Comey's decision to announce, 11 days before the election, that he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server.
Last month, Comey took the extraordinary step of telling Congress in an open meeting that the FBI is investigating Russia's involvement in the 2016 election and whether members of Trump's campaign were complicit in that effort. Sessions, a regular surrogate for the Trump campaign last year, has said he would recuse himself from any probe into the matter.
Throughout his confirmation process, Rosenstein offered little insight into his thinking about whether to appoint an independent investigator. He said only that he would make a decision once he had been briefed on the matter.
That answer has frustrated some Democrats.
"Only a special prosecutor can pursue an investigation into the Trump team's ties to Russia with the impartiality and independence it requires," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who opposed Rosenstein. "But despite persistent calls, compelling evidence, and clear historical precedent to appoint a special prosecutor, Mr. Rosenstein has refused to commit that he will do so."
Democrats who backed Rosenstein – including Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen – said they believe he will approach that and other decisions with an open mind and will not be pressured by politics.
Speaking on the floor shortly before the vote, Cardin described Rosenstein as someone who "will not yield to partisan pressure but do what is right" and said it is "good to know that we have that kind of person that we can confirm as deputy attorney general."
The Senate voted 94-6 to confirm Rosenstein. A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a question about when he will be sworn in.
Rosenstein, who declined to discuss the Russian case and other matters related to his new role, said he received calls from holdover attorneys from the Obama administration asking advice for how they could hang onto their jobs. One asked, "What did you do?"
"Here's what I did: I sat in my office and did my job, and I'm grateful someone made the decision to keep me here," Rosenstein said.
As deputy attorney general, Rosenstein will oversee day-to-day operations of the Justice Department — a job that predecessors say at times can be mechanical. Rosenstein will be responsible for resolving internal disputes, such as whether the FBI or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives takes the lead on an investigation. He will decide in which districts certain federal lawsuits will be filed. He will help hire and will oversee the U.S. attorneys in each of the nation's 94 federal districts.
He will also serve on a committee of the National Security Council made up of deputies from across the government.
"Your job is to keep the trains running and to keep the department operating according to its own internal ethics," said Mark Filip, an attorney and former federal judge who served as deputy attorney general during the Bush administration.
But there are also times when the position sets policy. Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates — an Obama administration holdover who was fired by Trump following her decision not to defend his travel ban — wrote a policy in 2015 that emphasized the prosecution of executives, not just the companies that employ them, for corporate crimes. Former deputies David W. Ogden and James Cole wrote memos describing how the department would handle prosecution of medical and then recreational marijuana in states that legalized it.
Rosenstein is no stranger to complicated investigations that are intertwined with politics. He was associate independent counsel under Kenneth W. Starr, who oversaw the Whitewater investigation into real estate dealings involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. He left for Maryland before the examination turned toward Monica Lewinsky's relationship with the former president.
Rosenstein, a Bethesda resident, considered prosecution of violent crimes in Maryland to be his top priority. His experience in Baltimore could be important for an administration that has repeatedly vowed to "restore law and order in cities."
"The people committing murders in Baltimore City are not, for the most part, police officers. There's a lot going on out there that has nothing to do with how the Police Department is run," he said. "The philosophy I brought in 2005 and still have today is that it's the responsibility of law enforcement to find a way to reduce violent crime.
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"We don't want our Police Department to be like the Fire Department — respond to the scene, put out the fire and return to the station. We want them to be proactive. We want them to view their jobs as preventing murders, not solving murders."
Rosenstein's office brought several police corruption cases, but he never weighed in on the consent decree for the Baltimore Police Department as it was being pursued.
Among the highlights of his tenure, Rosenstein pointed to a series of high-profile prison corruption indictments sparked by the killing of a murder witness, Carl Lackl. An inmate had used a contraband cellphone to order the slaying, highlighting an issue Rosenstein said he'd not previously been aware of.
Federal prosecutors would later roll out several massive indictments targeting prison gangs, including the city jail case involving the Black Guerrilla Family gang that made national headlines.