WASHINGTON — Despite unrelenting criticism from the White House on the course of the investigation into Russia’s election interference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Monday offered unqualified support for special counsel Robert Mueller.
“The special counsel is not an unguided missile,” Rosenstein said in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY. “I don’t believe there is any justification at this point for terminating the special counsel.”
Rosenstein’s remarks are among the first to address Mueller’s status since it was disclosed more than a month ago that President Trump sought to have the special counsel dismissed last summer. The president relented only when White House counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign if forced to carry out the directive.
The deputy attorney general, who is tasked with overseeing the special counsel, appointed Mueller last May to run the wide-ranging investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself because of his prior contacts with Russia Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Appearing upbeat and at ease in his fourth-floor office, Rosenstein said oversight of the inquiry requires only “a fraction” of his daily work. He estimated that less than 5% of his week is related to briefings or other matters involving Mueller’s investigation.
He dismissed the near-constant and pointed criticism aimed at the Justice Department from the White House and from an ultra-conservative Tea Party Patriots group. The group has run an ugly ad campaign, describing Rosenstein as “a weak careerist” and suggesting that he tender his own resignation.
“I believe much of the criticism will fall by the wayside when people reflect on this era and the Department of Justice,” said Rosenstein, who did not refer to Trump directly. “I’m very confident that when the history of this era is written, it will reflect that the department was operated with integrity.”
Confident in his job
Of his own job status, Rosenstein appeared both secure and pragmatic in the unpredictable age of Trump.
“I feel very confident in my ability to do the job,” he said. “In any political job, you recognize that your time is going to be limited. My goal is to get as much done for as long as I’m here in the job.
More: Ex-Trump aide Sam Nunberg calls Mueller subpoena request ‘ridiculous’
“And when my time is up, whenever that may be, I’m confident that I’m going to be able to look back proudly on the work our department has done while I’ve been fortunate enough to be here.”
Rosenstein did invoke Trump’s name when he referred to the Justice Department’s so-far signature campaign aimed at reducing crime, while pushing for harsher punishments in cases involving violent crime. He said the department was responding to the priorities laid out by the president, while “restoring” the authority of federal prosecutors and other law enforcement officials to bring homicides down across the country after two years of increases.
Rosenstein also referred to the department’s effort against the scourge of opioid addiction, with Justice recently pledging to pursue manufacturers.
“Most of the work goes unheralded and un-criticized,” he said, adding that his work is focused in “implementing the priorities of the president and the attorney general.”
Comey’s dismissal increased pressure
The deputy attorney general first emerged as a central figure in the tumultuous first months of the Trump administration when the White House disclosed that Rosenstein and Sessions had recommended the May dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.
Later that month, Rosenstein announced the appointment of Mueller to oversee the continuing inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, igniting Trump’s bitter campaign against his own Justice Department.
The criticism only seems to escalate with the announcement of every new indictment in an inquiry that has snared — among others — Trump’s former national security adviser, former campaign and deputy campaign chief.
The decision to appoint Mueller fell to Rosenstein after Sessions’ recusal in March. Two months later, Rosenstein called the appointment of a special counsel “necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.”
“Our nation is grounded on the rule of law and the public must be assured that government officials administer the law fairly,” Rosenstein said in May. “Special Counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result.”
Although Trump continues to refer to the inquiry as a “witchhunt” and has leveled bitter criticism against the leadership of Rosenstein and Sessions at Justice, the deputy attorney general has not wavered from his support of Mueller.
“I can assure you that the special counsel is conducting himself consistently with our understanding of the scope of the investigation,” Rosenstein told a House panel in December, before offering a stirring defense of the special counsel’s credibility.
“I think it would be very difficult to find anybody better qualified for this job…I believe that, based upon his reputation, his service, his patriotism, his experience with the department and the FBI, he was an ideal choice for this task.”
Rosenstein acknowledged Monday that the work is sometimes difficult in the face of constant scrutiny.
He also conceded that the public nature of his job, traditionally carried out in near-anonymity, was un-expected.
“I anticipated that this would be a lower-profile job,” he said.
Still, Rosenstein said he wouldn’t trade places with any of his predecessors, including those who served during Watergate and more recently during the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
“It’s inevitable that the deputy attorney general will get caught up in matters that are the subject of public controversy.”
“We need to do what we believe is right based on the facts and the law,” he said. “To the extent we get any criticism from any side, we need to set that aside. That can’t influence us in our decision making.”
Explaining that criticism to his two teenage children is another matter.
“No offense,” Rosenstein said, referring to the reporter sitting across from him, “ignore the media. They know I’m here to do the right thing.”