WASHINGTON — When the time came for the Trump administration to explain why it had fired the embattled director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the job fell not to the president or attorney general, but to the former U.S. attorney from Maryland with a reputation for putting the law above politics.
It was Rod J. Rosenstein, sworn in just two weeks ago as deputy attorney general, who laid out the biting case for sacking James B. Comey on Tuesday. His three-page memo, arguing that the FBI's credibility had "suffered substantial damage" during Comey's tenure, will be closely scrutinized in the political maelstrom to come.
President Donald Trump's decision will also have repercussions for Rosenstein: The move amplified calls from Democrats to appoint an independent investigator to probe Russia's ties to the Trump campaign. Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself in that matter, it is Rosenstein's decision to make.
The 52-year-old career federal prosecutor has enjoyed wide bipartisan support in Maryland and Washington, and won Senate confirmation for his job with a nearly unanimous vote. It is likely because of his standing that the White House rushed Rosenstein's memo to reporters soon after announcing Comey's ouster.
"I cannot defend the director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken," Rosenstein wrote of the FBI investigation into last year's Democratic presidential nominee. "Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes."
Comey enraged members of both political parties by, on the one hand, publicly discussing the Clinton email investigation during the presidential campaign — breaking with the FBI's practice of trying to avoid the appearance of getting involved in politics. His announcement that the investigation would not lead to prosecution also angered many on the right.
Trump asserted on Twitter just last week that Comey was "the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!" Clinton has recently said she believes the FBI's handling of the case is partly to blame for her loss.
Rosenstein, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland from 2005 until he assumed his new position on April 26, wrote that Comey had usurped the attorney general's authority when he announced at a news conference in July that the Clinton case should be closed without prosecution. Comey compounded the problem, Rosenstein wrote, by releasing derogatory information about Clinton at that event "gratuitously."
"The director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial," Rosenstein wrote. "It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do."
Rosenstein, who was the nation's longest-serving U.S. attorney, used a large portion of his memo to quote former attorneys general dating back to the Ford administration, noting that officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations have been critical of Comey's performance.
"My perspective," Rosenstein wrote, "is shared by former attorneys general ... from different eras and both political parties."
The letter stood in sharp contrast to those released from Trump and Sessions, both of which were short on explanation and instead referred to Rosenstein's justification.
"I have accepted their recommendation," Trump wrote to Comey, referring to Sessions and Rosenstein, "and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately."
Still, Rosenstein's reputation as an apolitical operator will do little to quiet criticism that Trump's abrupt decision to fire Comey was based on the agency's investigation into Russia's involvement in the presidential election. One Democratic senator compared the move to President Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," in which the White House fired an independent prosecutor overseeing the Watergate probe in 1973.
Others noted that Rosenstein's memo offered little new evidence to explain why Comey was fired now.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Sessions, Rosenstein and Comey should all be brought before Congress to testify at "emergency" hearings.
"The president fired the one independent person who was doing the most to investigate President Trump and his campaign over allegations of coordination with Russia," Cummings said in a statement. "There is now a crisis of confidence at the Justice Department."
Comey's firing also prompted a chorus of Democrats to reiterate their request for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia and the election. That was the most significant issue that gave some Democrats pause about Rosentein during his confirmation. Rosenstein signaled little about his intentions, repeatedly saying he would make a decision once he had been briefed.
"Congress must continue its work to investigate possible collusion, but the timing of Director Comey's firing requires that the Justice Department immediately appoint a special prosecutor in order to reinstall confidence in our justice system and in our intelligence agencies," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.
Though he now sits at the center of one of the nation's most politically charged debates, Rosenstein has long tried to present an image of being above the fray. Rosenstein was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. attorney post in 2005 and was kept on by President Barack Obama. During his confirmation process this year, senators received letters of support for Rosenstein from former Justice Department officials of both parties.
Rosenstein, a Bethesda resident, has been involved in complicated political investigations before. 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 the Maryland job before the examination turned toward Monica Lewinsky's relationship with the former president.
Rosenstein has pointed to a series of high-profile prison corruption indictments as among the highlights of his work in Maryland. Federal prosecutors rolled out several massive indictments targeting prison gangs, including the city jail case involving the Black Guerrilla Family gang that made national headlines.