The man who will be thrust into the role of overseeing the federal investigations into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election has built a career as an apolitical prosecutor.
As deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein will be second in command at the Justice Department. But with Attorney General Jeff Sessions forced to recuse himself from the Russia investigations, it will be Rosenstein, the 52-year-old federal prosecutor, who must ultimately decide whether anyone in the Trump administration or his campaign team collaborated with Russians to interfere in the election.
During a confirmation hearing in Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Rosenstein deflected Democrats’ questions on whether he would appoint a special prosecutor in the case.
“I’m simply not in a position to answer that,” he said.
Rosenstein’s reply cost him one Democratic vote on the committee. But to supporters, it presaged the nonpartisanship with which he’ll lead the Russia investigations.
“I thought he did an excellent job of not engaging in the political gamesmanship that those questions were a part of,” said George Terwilliger, a deputy attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush.
More than two months after Trump nominated Rosenstein, the Judiciary Committee on Monday voted to confirm his nomination, clearing it for a vote by the full Senate.
In the Justice Department, the attorney general effectively serves as chairman and the deputy attorney general as “chief operating officer” of a department with more than 100,000 personnel, Terwilliger said. To be successful, a deputy attorney general must not only have extensive experience in criminal justice but also an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Justice Department, he added.
“Mr. Rosenstein has all of that requisite experience,” Terwilliger said.
Rosenstein’s career spans a 14-year stint in senior positions at the Justice Department and nearly 12 years as the top federal prosecutor for the state of Maryland.
Former colleagues and others who have worked with Rosenstein over the years describe him as calm and cool-headed, with a reputation for fairness and a commitment to public service.
“He’s an extremely able, fair and just federal prosecutor,” said Steve Silverman, a Baltimore-based defense attorney whose office has defended cases brought by Rosenstein’s office.
Rosenstein is a registered Republican, but he has made no campaign donations to any political candidates, according to election records. And for an administration known for staffing senior positions with business and financial elites, Rosenstein is an outlier in his modest wealth.
In a public disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Rosenstein listed assets valued between $84,000 and $385,000.
In 1991, two years out of Harvard Law School, Rosenstein joined the Justice Department as a trial attorney in the public integrity section, the unit in charge of prosecuting public corruption cases.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who supervised Rosenstein at the time, recalled him as “a very talented and gifted attorney.”
“Even at an early age, he exhibited the sound judgment and careful thought that was necessary to handle the very sensitive public corruption cases that were prosecuted by the section,” Cole wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rosenstein rose through the Justice Department’s ranks to become counsel to the deputy attorney general and, eventually, principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Tax Division.
In 1995, independent counsel Kenneth Starr tapped him as an associate counsel for his investigation of former President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater financial dealings. The investigation shut down in 1997 without any criminal charges.
In 2005, former President George W. Bush nominated Rosenstein to serve as the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, one of 94 districts in the federal court system.
U.S. attorneys, who are presidential appointees, typically leave with a change in administration, but Rosenstein has held the position under three presidents, becoming the longest-serving U.S. attorney.
Cross section of support
Rosenstein’s nomination has drawn the support of a cross section of current and former officials in Maryland.
Robert Ehrlich, who served as governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, wrote that Rosenstein “inherited a difficult situation” in 1995 when Baltimore, the state’s largest city, faced a crime epidemic. Under his watch, however, homicides and other violent crimes declined before a surge in 2015.
Rosenstein’s critics, though, have charged him with being soft on law enforcement.
In a questionnaire provided by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rosenstein listed the investigation and prosecution of James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for leaking classified information to journalists as one of the 10 most significant cases he personally litigated.
Cartwright pleaded guilty after a four-year investigation, but President Barack Obama pardoned him before leaving office.
As a presidential appointee, Rosenstein will be carrying out Trump’s law enforcement agenda, Terwilliger said.
That may mean focusing on Attorney General Sessions’ goals of combating violent crime and illegal immigration.