Some Democratic lawmakers and legal observers suggested Tuesday that President Donald Trump may have abused his office in abruptly firing FBI Director James Comey, who was in the midst of investigating potential collusion between members of Trump’s inner circle and Russian operatives interfering in the U.S. election.
Yet Comey’s dismissal was prompted by a recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a career Justice Department attorney with a straight-and-narrow reputation.
Trump wrote to Comey that he concurred “with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” citing letters from both Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions’ letter was just one paragraph long. Rosenstein, who was only confirmed on April 25, put forth a three-page, in-depth memorandum detailing the “substantial damage” he said Comey did to the FBI’s “reputation and credibility” with his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
This was the bulk of Rosenstein’s case—a surprising one for the Trump administration to make, given the President’s past praise for Comey airing details of the Clinton email server probe in public press conferences on July 5 and Oct. 28.
“The way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong,” Rosenstein wrote. “As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”
The New York Times and CNN reported that senior officials at the White House and DOJ had been instructed to spend the last week finding a reason to terminate Comey. But Rosenstein’s background as a longtime, deeply respected federal prosecutor offers some cover to the Trump administration. He has worked in high-level posts in the administrations of former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, most recently serving as the U.S. attorney for Maryland.
First nominated in January, Rosenstein was confirmed by the Senate only two weeks ago in a 94-6 vote.
Because Sessions’ close ties to the Trump campaign forced him to recuse himself from the investigation into Russia’s election meddling, Rosenstein will handle all Russia-related (or Trump campaign-related) matters in his role.
He was criticized by Democrats during his confirmation hearings for refusing to commit to appointing a special prosecutor to lead an independent investigation on Russia, saying he first needed to learn “the information that they know.”
A number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), said Tuesday that Comey’s firing made an independent probe all the more urgent.
“The American people’s trust in our criminal justice system is in Rosenstein’s hands,” Schumer said in a solemn public statement. “Mr. Rosenstein, America depends on you to restore faith in our criminal justice system, which is going to be badly shattered after the administration’s actions today.”
“This investigation must be run as far away as possible from this White House,” Schumer added.