Rod Rosenstein, in his first day of public appearances since ending a stormy tenure as U.S. deputy attorney general, defended his role in President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of former FBI director James Comey, whom he called a “partisan pundit.”
Rosenstein’s speech Monday night at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting came after Comey — a sharp critic of Trump’s — recently criticized Rosenstein in a New York Times Op-Ed for giving a speech quoting the president on the importance of the rule of law. Trump, Comey wrote, “eats your soul in small bites.”
Rosenstein struck back Monday night.
“Now the former director seems to be acting as a partisan pundit, selling books and earning speaking fees while speculating about the strength of my character and the fate of my immortal soul,” Rosenstein said at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel. “I kid you not. That is disappointing. Speculating about souls is not a job for police and prosecutors. Generally we base our opinions on eyewitness testimony."
Rosenstein also criticized Comey for his handling of an investigation into a private email server used by Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
Rosenstein said Comey “chose to send a letter to the Congress on the eve of the election stating that one of the presidential candidates was under criminal investigation, expecting that letter to be released immediately to the public. Those actions in my view were not within the realm of reasonable decisions."
Comey, who has delivered speeches around the country — including in Baltimore — about his tenure, has said he faced a difficult decision in effectively going public with the Clinton email investigation. But he has said he doesn’t second-guess his decision.
In his speech, Rosenstein said he was determined to protect the independence of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russan interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Comey was fired in May 2017. In doing so, the White House pointed to a memo by Rosenstein in which he criticized the director's handling of the investigation of Clinton's email server.
Rosenstein said critics believed the ouster was part of an effort to derail the Russia investigation.
But Rosenstein told the business executives and dignitaries Monday night: “I was responsible for that investigation. I would never allow anyone to interfere with that investigation.”
Earlier in the day, Rosenstein — the former U.S. attorney for Maryland — quoted Mueller in a speech urging University of Baltimore law school graduates to remain true to their principles.
“You will face pressure to compromise on things that matter most, perhaps even to trade virtue for the appearance of virtue,” Rosenstein said in the commencement address at the packed Lyric theater. “But you should exercise caution when uncomfortable circumstances tempt you to disregard principles.”
Rosenstein, wearing a dark graduation gown as he stood behind a lectern on the stage, then referenced a speech that Mueller — then FBI director — delivered at William & Mary in 2013.
“There may come a time when you will be tested,” Rosenstein quoted Mueller as saying. “You may find yourself standing alone, against those you thought were trusted colleagues. You may stand to lose all that you have worked for. And it may not be an easy call.”
Rosenstein was viewed by Democrats as a guardian of the Mueller probe. Meanwhile, Republicans sought to undermine the investigation and question the motives of Rosenstein and Mueller. Both are Republicans.
The report said investigators did not establish that Trump’s 2016 campaign conspired with the Russians but reached no conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.
In introducing Rosenstein to the graduates, law school dean Ronald Welch called him a straight shooter who “was often under fire” and “made the tough calls.”
Rosenstein’s resignation — announced in an April 29 letter to Trump — was effective Saturday.
In the letter, Rosenstein thanked the president for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations; and for the goals you set in your inaugural address: patriotism, unity, safety, education, and prosperity.”
The letter came 11 days after the public release of Mueller’s report.
Rosenstein’s tenure at the department often seemed precarious, never more so than after a New York Times report in September that he once discussed invoking the 25th Amendment — which outlines a method to remove an unfit chief executive — and the possibility of secretly recording the president.
Rosenstein said at the time that the report was not accurate. The Justice Department released a separate statement from an official who said he recalled the recording comment, but that it was meant sarcastically.
Rosenstein told the graduates that the median tenure of a deputy attorney general is just 16 months.
He served about two years, saying in his resignation letter that the department made “rapid” progress in “reducing violent crime, curtailing opioid abuse, protecting consumers, improving immigration enforcement … ”
“Before I went to Washington in 2017, my daughter asked whether I would get my picture in the newspaper,” he said in Monday’s speech. “I said no. I told her that deputy attorney general is a low-profile job. Nobody knows the deputy attorney general. I was mistaken about that.”
Rosenstein was Maryland's U.S. attorney for 12 years when he left the office in Baltimore to serve as the No. 2 to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions ordinarily would have overseen the Russia investigation but recused himself because of his close involvement in the Trump campaign. Trump ousted Sessions after the November 2018 elections.
As the second-ranking department official, Rosenstein could have been named acting attorney general. But Trump named Matthew Whitaker, who had been Sessions’ chief of staff, before the Senate confirmed William Barr to the post in February.