Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein launched a public attack on former FBI Director James Comey on Monday, even as he defended Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in the face of Republican attacks on its legitimacy.
Rosenstein’s speech, on Monday night, marked the latest clash among those who held the highest positions within the U.S. government over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein, who oversaw the Mueller inquiry and stepped down less than a week ago, said he had admired Comey but is now disappointed in him, according to the prepared text of his remarks in an address to the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Rosenstein’s defense of the investigation comes as some congressional Republicans, along with Trump himself, have pushed for scrutiny of origins of the investigation. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others say they want to know if there were political motivations for the probe, and even misconduct in the use of surveillance.
In his speech, Rosenstein said that based on what he knew by May 2017 from briefings by FBI agents and prosecutors, the Russia investigation “was justified and closing it was not an option.” By then, he said, he knew people with connections to “a presidential campaign were under investigation in relation to their connections with Russian agents.”
But he pointed out the Justice Department’s inspector general is currently reviewing aspects of the investigation’s genesis, and if new facts are found, he could reconsider his opinion.
Having drawn fire on both sides of the political aisle for some of his decisions, Rosenstein disputed any partisan leanings. When it came to “foreign election interference,” like tens of thousands of other cases he supervised, he said, “I was always on the same team. I was on the American team.”
As for Comey, Rosenstein insisted that his role in the former FBI’s director’s firing was not a maneuver at the president’s request to interfere with the investigation.
Rosenstein said that Mueller’s report states that former that when White House Counsel Don McGahn advised him that Trump had decided to remove Comey, but that to him, “nobody said that the removal was intended to influence the course of my Russia investigation.”
Rosenstein said he does not dislike the former director, and in fact, “at the time I admired him personally and appreciated some of his accomplishments at the FBI.”
But he suggested that Comey had made mistakes, with “the clearest mistake” being to reveal his recommendation about the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email use, discussing details about it, and then sending a letter to Congress “on the eve of the election stating that one of the candidates was under criminal investigation,” a reference to Clinton.
“These actions were not within the range of reasonable decisions, Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein added he does not blame Comey for being angry. ‘But now the former director is a partisan pundit, selling books and earning speaking fees while speculating about the strength of my character and the fate of my immortal soul,” he said in the prepared remarks. “That is disappointing.”
In a New York Times opinion piece published on May 1, Comey accused Rosenstein and Attorney General William Barr of having been compromised by Trump, saying their “souls” have apparently been eaten by the president.
“Proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing,” Comey wrote in the piece. ‘I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from.’
Nowhere in his speech did Rosenstein mention that top Trump allies in Congress last year threatened to force a vote on impeaching him after reports that he sought to secretly record the president after Comey’s firing. He also did not talk about whether that was true.
The now Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee in March backed a Republican effort to look into accusations Rosenstein considered secretly recording Trump and even invoke the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove him from office. But a resolution demanding any Justice Department records of such suggestions has not advanced to the House floor for a vote.
Rosenstein has denied ever suggesting the president be secretly tape recorded.
The Justice Department could have a new deputy attorney general this week, as the Senate could act on the nomination of Jeffrey Rosen.