WASHINGTON – Rod Rosenstein's tenure as deputy attorney general and the top Justice Department official overseeing the Russia investigation appears to be in peril after President Donald Trump refused to say Friday whether he had confidence in him.
After Trump authorized release of a controversial memo on FBI surveillance practices by House Intelligence Committee Republicans, he was asked by a reporter whether he was more likely to fire Rosenstein and whether he had confidence in the 27-year-veteran of the Justice Department who oversees its day-to-day operations and special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation.
"You figure that one out," Trump replied.
The memo says that Rosenstein signed an application to renew a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, and says that information justifying that and other warrant requests to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was tainted by political bias. The FBI has said it has "grave concerns" that the memo leaves out important material, creating an inaccurate impression of its work.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said in a statement that he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek the criminal prosecution of Rosenstein and several former Justice Department officials whom he described as "traitors to our nation."
But in a letter to the White House, Democratic congressional leaders rushed to Rosenstein's defense.
"We are alarmed by reports that you may intend to use this misleading document as a pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in an effort to corruptly influence or impede Special Counsel Bob Mueller's investigation," top House and Senate Democrats wrote Trump.
"Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ Leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre," the Democratic leaders wrote, referring to President Richard M. Nixon's decision during the Watergate scandal to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, an order that led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
On Friday morning, Rosenstein and other senior Justice officials carried on with their work as speculation swirled in Washington about the fallout from the memo's release. Rosenstein, Sessions and Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the third-highest-ranking Justice official, came together publicly for the first time to kick off an all-day summit on combating human trafficking held in the department's Great Hall.
Sessions went off-script at the event to praise Rosenstein, saying he represents "the kind of quality and leadership that we want" at the Justice Department.
No one addressed the issue of the memo, but Sessions in a statement later said, "I have great confidence in the men and women of this department. But no department is perfect. . . . I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth."
Rosenstein, 53, previously the longtime U.S. attorney in Baltimore, has been shadowed by the investigation into possible coordination during the 2016 campaign between Trump associates and agents of the Russian government since he became deputy attorney general last April.
A month after he was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate, Rosenstein, a Republican, came under fire for his role in the firing of former FBI director James Comey. Sessions and Rosenstein met with Trump at the White House the day before Comey was fired, and the president asked them to put in writing a rationale for the dismissal.
After Trump fired Comey, White House officials said the memo that Rosenstein wrote about Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation was the main reason for Trump's action. Rosenstein threatened to resign over that narrative because the president had decided to fire Comey before Rosenstein wrote the document.
A few days after the firing, Trump told NBC News' Lester Holt that he was considering "this Russia thing" when he fired Comey.
Rosenstein was overseeing the Russia investigation at that time because Sessions had recused himself a few months earlier after The Washington Post disclosed that he had met several times during the 2016 election campaign with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – a fact he had not disclosed during his confirmation hearing when asked about contacts with Russians.
Rosenstein, who had been confirmed by the Senate 94 to 6 and was known as an independent and apolitical prosecutor, was harshly attacked for his role in the Comey firing. Before his appointment, Rosenstein had been the sole holdover U.S. attorney who had worked in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
On May 17, about a week after the Comey firing, Rosenstein announced that he had appointed Mueller as special counsel to conduct the Russia investigation. The decision took Trump by surprise and angered him.
"I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," Trump tweeted in June, in an apparent reference to Rosenstein.
At some point over the summer, Mueller's office interviewed Rosenstein, which put the investigators in the unusual position of interviewing the man who had authority over their investigation.
Questions were raised by some lawmakers about why Rosenstein did not recuse himself after he was interviewed by the special counsel's team about his role in the Comey firing. Rosenstein has declined to discuss the issue.
Trump continued to publicly attack Sessions and the Justice Department, but Sessions and Rosenstein moved ahead with their conservative agenda and began undoing Obama-era criminal justice and civil rights initiatives.
On Jan. 5, Rosenstein traveled to Florida to speak to the Palm Beach Forum Club about the rule of law.
"We spent the day helping to protect our nation and promote the rule of law," Rosenstein said. "And I am proud to work for a president and an attorney general who support our efforts to achieve those goals."
Recently, Rosenstein defended Mueller when Rosenstein was questioned by the House Judiciary Committee about whether bias might have tainted the special counsel's investigation.
Rosenstein said that he had not seen good cause to fire Mueller, and that although some members of the special counsel team had political views, that did not necessarily taint their work. He disputed the notion that the probe is a "witch hunt."
"We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions," Rosenstein said. "I believe that Director Mueller understands that, and he is running his office appropriately."
But Rosenstein again raised the president's ire over the House Intelligence Committee's memo. Along with FBI Director Christopher Wray, he made a last-ditch plea this week to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about the dangers of releasing the document.
In an interview with Fox News on Friday night, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who orchestrated the memo's release, declined to say whether he thought Rosenstein should be fired.
"I personally like Rod Rosenstein, but the bottom line is Mr. Rosenstein, Attorney General Sessions and [FBI Director Chris A.] Wray have work to do," Nunes said. "Admit first that you have a problem, and they've been unwilling to do that." Nunes added that he thinks Rosenstein "can fix the problems over at DOJ, and we're willing to work with him."