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James Trusty Quoted by New York Times on Appointment of Special Counsel by DOJ

Caught in White House Chaos, Justice Dept. Official Seeks Neutral Ground

By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and REBECCA R. RUIZ

WASHINGTON — Last month, Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general at the center of the crisis building around President Trump’s White House, gathered with federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials to bid farewell to his old job, United States attorney in Maryland, and celebrate his new one.

At an interfaith center in Columbia, Md., as guests nibbled on egg rolls and miniature roast beef sandwiches, Mr. Rosenstein joked darkly about the low pay and high burnout rate that come with being the No. 2 official at the Department of Justice. His daughter would have to wait for the big yard she had been wanting, he said, and the average length of tenure for the post he was about to assume was little more than a year.

“He was happy, but he was also cleareyed about what he was getting himself into,” said James M. Trusty, a friend and former colleague from Mr. Rosenstein’s days as a federal prosecutor in Maryland, who attended the going-away party. “He knew going in that this is kind of a meat grinder, that nobody comes out of the deputy attorney general position without aging.”

Yet Mr. Rosenstein, sworn in on April 26, could hardly have predicted the speed at which he would become embroiled in a high-stakes drama at the uppermost echelons of government. In the past two weeks, he has been saddled with a leading role in the firing of an F.B.I. director, called to answer for the shifting explanations of a White House in chaos and ultimately moved to name a special counsel now investigating the president himself.

Lawmakers and former colleagues were left to wonder how an experienced and scrupulous lawyer known as being apolitical allowed himself to be drawn into a highly politicized firing, either as a willing participant or an unwitting accomplice.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster ride in terms of Rod’s reputation,” said Douglas F. Gansler, former attorney general of Maryland, who worked closely with Mr. Rosenstein when he was United States attorney.

Mr. Rosenstein, who was confirmed 94 to 6 by the Senate last month, was swept into the turmoil when the president cited a three-page memo from him as a pretext for dismissing James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, blaming Mr. Comey’s handling last year of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

But Mr. Rosenstein knew Mr. Comey was to be ousted before he ever sat down to write his memo, he has told lawmakers. Soon after Mr. Comey’s sudden dismissal on May 9, Mr. Trump and aides began offering varying explanations, with the president admitting within days that he had made the decision himself, as he fumed about the investigation Mr. Comey was leading into his campaign’s ties with Russia.

The day after the firing, in an at-times tense conversation with Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, Mr. Rosenstein stressed that he did not want to be part of an effort to obfuscate or “massage” the facts about it, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion.

Nearly a week later, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey in February to quash the Russia investigation, raising the specter of obstruction of justice.

Video Michael S. Schmidt, a New York Times reporter, explains new revelations from a memo written by James B. Comey, the fired F.B.I. director. The memo showed that President Trump may have tried to halt the agency’s investigation into Michael T. Flynn.

By then, Mr. Rosenstein, the top law enforcement official overseeing the inquiry, had few options. A day later, he named a former F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, as a special counsel to lead the investigation.

Mr. Rosenstein gave minimal notice to Mr. Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation in March and was at the White House when Mr. Rosenstein signed the order appointing Mr. Mueller.

The sequence of events suggested Mr. Rosenstein was determined to keep the investigation from being imperiled by the political tumult and wanted to reassert his own independence from it.

“Do I think he was prepared to have that memorandum treated the way it was by the White House? Not a chance,” said Andrew C. White, who worked as a federal prosecutor in Maryland with Mr. Rosenstein and has been in contact with him in recent days.

“But it’s very symbolic” how he responded, Mr. White added, “because the record was set straight, taken care of quietly and out of the spotlight. It’s classic Rod.”

Mr. Rosenstein, who did not respond to requests for an interview, emphasized the rule of law in a statement last week explaining his decision.

“Based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command,” he said. “A special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.”

Mr. Rosenstein, 52, is an improbable character in the theatrics surrounding Mr. Trump. Reserved and bookish, he spends most of his time, friends say, working or spending time with his wife and children, including frequently shuttling his two teenage girls to soccer and softball games.

“He’s a deputy attorney general and sports taxi,” Mr. White said. “But now his sports taxi has two armored Suburbans, and one is a decoy car.”

He and his wife, Lisa Barsoomian, a former prosecutor who later worked as a lawyer for the National Institutes of Health and took time off to raise their daughters, live in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Md., in a brick raised ranch house.

Mr. Rosenstein’s quirks, according to friends and colleagues, include handing out books by the management guru Peter Drucker to colleagues and sending lengthy emails to his staff before federal holidays, documenting their history and little-remembered factoids about their observance.

Mr. Trusty, now a partner at Ifrah Law in Washington, recalled the day he met Mr. Rosenstein during a job interview at the United States attorney’s office in Maryland, where talk turned to sports and the Washington Redskins.

“He mentioned he was from Philadelphia, and I said, ‘You’re probably an Eagles fan,’” Mr. Trusty said. “Rod’s like, ‘I don’t really care for professional football.’ And I just thought to myself, here’s this really serious guy — I don’t think I’ll ever get along with that dude.”

But when they worked together on a case of tax preparer fraud a couple of years later, Mr. Trusty was astonished with Mr. Rosenstein’s effectiveness in the courtroom, which he attributed to preparation and legal skill.

“The jury was just eating out of his hand,” Mr. Trusty recounted.

He is also supremely careful, say those who know him, and unwilling to subvert the rules. For Mr. Rosenstein, Mr. Comey’s unusual decision to go public last July with his conclusions in the Clinton investigation was deeply troubling, almost to the point of being a personal affront.

Mr. Rosenstein believed Mr. Comey had compromised longstanding traditions at the Department of Justice, and did severe damage. In his memo, Mr. Rosenstein called Mr. Comey’s actions “a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

Mr. Rosenstein grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, in Lower Moreland, Pa., the son of Robert and Gerri Rosenstein. His father ran a small business and his mother worked as a bookkeeper.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Rosenstein went to Harvard Law School, where he edited the Harvard Law Review and got his degree in 1989.

In 1990, Mr. Rosenstein began his decades-long career at the Justice Department, starting as a trial lawyer in the public integrity section of the criminal division in Washington, and within a few years moving to the deputy attorney general’s office.

He was later tapped to join the team of prosecutors working under Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel, on the Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton’s business dealings.

In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to be Maryland’s United States attorney. Mr. Rosenstein stayed there for 12 years, throughout the Obama administration and until last month.

Mr. Rosenstein’s endurance across administrations concerned Mr. Comey, according to a friend, Benjamin Wittes, who told The Times that Mr. Comey had said of Mr. Rosenstein: “You don’t survive that long without making some compromises.”

His allies defended Mr. Rosenstein, saying he never shrank from tough cases.

Mr. Gansler cited Mr. Rosenstein’s work on the Black Guerrilla Family case in Maryland, an investigation into gang activity at Baltimore city jails that resulted in corruption charges against many correctional officers.

“It had a lot of political overtones, and he just did his job,” Mr. Gansler said. “He said, ‘Here are the facts, here is the law, here’s what we’re doing.’”

Yet his exacting approach and zealous pursuit of cases have sometimes earned him criticism. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appointed Mr. Rosenstein to run the high-profile leak investigation involving James E. Cartwright, a retired four-star Marine general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff accused of sharing classified information with reporters.

Senior Obama administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to prejudice potential future professional dealings with Mr. Rosenstein, said he and his team had taken a remarkably aggressive and adversarial tone during the investigation, including with anyone who might have spoken to journalists who had discovered confidential information.

Mr. Rosenstein won a guilty plea in the case last year, but General Cartwright was later pardoned by President Barack Obama. Mr. Rosenstein would not discuss the investigation at his confirmation hearing beyond what was in the public record, but wrote in a sentencing memo in January that General Cartwright’s case should serve as an example.

“The need for deterrence is strong,” Mr. Rosenstein wrote. “Every day across the United States government, individuals are entrusted with highly sensitive classified information. They must understand that disclosing such information to persons not authorized to receive it has severe consequences.”

Mr. Sessions first contacted Mr. Rosenstein late last fall about taking the job as deputy.

The two met not long after and discussed getting rid of Mr. Comey, part of an effort, Mr. Rosenstein told senators in a briefing last week, to restore the F.B.I.’s credibility, “respect the established authority of the Department of Justice, limit public statements and eliminate leaks.”

So when Mr. Trump decided that it was time for Mr. Comey to go, Mr. Rosenstein’s views on the matter were well known to him and Mr. Sessions. Mr. Rosenstein has refused to answer questions about why he wrote the memo, frustrating lawmakers eager to determine what led to Comey’s ouster.

“We asked that question about 25 different ways,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said last week after emerging from the closed-door briefing with Mr. Rosenstein.

He is keenly aware that the public, including a highly skeptical Congress, is scrutinizing his every move. Weeks before his March confirmation hearing, Mr. Rosenstein told acquaintances that he expected few fireworks, with attention focused on higher-profile nominees.

But that changed after Mr. Sessions recused himself from any investigation involving Russia, after revelations that he had not disclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador. Mr. Rosenstein’s hearing was suddenly transformed into a focal point for concerns by members of both parties about what his role would be in the Russia inquiry, including whether he would name a special counsel.

“Big day — good luck!” Gregg Bernstein, who is in private practice after leaving his state’s attorney post in Baltimore in 2015 and is close to Mr. Rosenstein, wrote his friend in a text message before the hearing.

Mr. Rosenstein responded dryly: “I have bipartisan opposition.”

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