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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein submits his resignation

The man who appointed special counsel Robert Mueller is departing now that the investigation has wrapped up.

Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein Announces Law Enforcement Action Related To China
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on December 20, 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department official who appointed special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the Russia investigation, is now, finally and officially, stepping down.

Rosenstein submitted his not exactly subtle resignation letter to the president on April 29, indicating that his last day in office will be May 11.

“We enforce the law without fear or favor because credible evidence is not partisan, and truth is not determined by opinion polls. We ignore fleeting distractions and focus our attention on the things that matter, because a republic that endures is not governed by the news cycle,” Rosenstein wrote to the president. “We keep the faith, follow the rules, and we always put America first.”

Rosenstein’s departure has been anticipated for some time, after reports surfaced earlier this year that he planned to leave the administration voluntarily following the arrival of new Attorney General Bill Barr, who was confirmed on February 14. That was more than two months ago, and Rosenstein ended up staying on through the conclusion of the Mueller investigation he once oversaw, and the publication of the partially redacted report on April 18.

Rosenstein’s leaving kicks off a new era at the Department of Justice: Barr is bringing on Jeffrey Rosen, who served as the deputy transportation secretary, to replace Rosenstein as his No. 2.

The legacy Rosenstein leaves behind as deputy attorney general is a complicated one. The deputy AG is usually in charge of running the day-to-day operations at the Department of Justice — an incredibly important job, but not one that frequently makes headlines.

But when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from all investigations involving the 2016 presidential campaign in March 2017, the position of the No. 2 official at DOJ suddenly became a lot more interesting. And it got even more so when Rosenstein authored a letter in May recommending that President Trump fire FBI Director James Comey and, in the chaos that followed after Trump did so, appointed a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.

The Mueller investigation is now concluded, so it’s somewhat fitting that Rosenstein is leaving the Department of Justice now. He protected the probe and defended its mandate during periods of tumult in the administration and against pressure from Republicans in Congress.

And somehow, Rosenstein — the man overseeing the “witch hunt” Trump so loathed — survived almost two years in the job. Even Rosenstein himself seemed surprised by his ability to leave on his own terms. “The median tenure of a Deputy Attorney General is 16 months,” Rosenstein noted in his resignation letter, “and few serve longer than two years.”

Rosenstein’s appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller will define his time as DAG

The Senate confirmed Rosenstein as deputy attorney general in April 2017 with overwhelming bipartisan support. A career DOJ official, Rosenstein previously served as the US attorney for the District of Maryland, after being appointed by George W. Bush in 2005. He held that position through the end of the Obama administration.

About two weeks into Rosenstein’s tenure as deputy attorney general, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and released a memo that Rosenstein had written about Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation. Trump used this memo to justify Comey’s dismissal.

Chaos ensued in the days after Comey’s firing, with speculation that Trump had fired Comey over the intensifying Russia investigation — a concern that only grew after Trump admitted in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he had been angry about the Russia investigation when he fired Comey.

Then on May 17, 2017, Rosenstein made probably the most consequential decision of his tenure: He appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel to take over the Russia investigation.

Rosenstein oversaw the investigation from then until late 2018, when Trump forced Sessions out and appointed Sessions’s chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, as acting AG. But even then, Rosenstein reportedly continued to be involved in the day-to-day management of the Mueller investigation.

Rosenstein provided critical oversight, including approving Mueller’s investigatory mandate and signing off on major decisions, such as referring the investigation of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

Most critically, Rosenstein protected the independence of Mueller’s work against the onslaught of attacks from both Trump and the president’s allies in Congress.

Rosenstein is the Trump administration’s ultimate survivor

Those battles did not endear Rosenstein to the president and his supporters. The deputy attorney general appeared on the verge of getting fired multiple times during his tenure as Trump railed against the Russia investigation and conservative groups attacked Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general also faced an (albeit short-lived) threat of impeachment from House Republicans in July 2018.

Yet he somehow managed to survive, as did the Russia investigation. It was close, though. In September, the New York Times published a report that claimed Rosenstein had considered wearing a wire to record Trump and debated recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment against the president in the tumultuous days after Comey’s firing.

Rosenstein’s ouster seemed imminent — and reports circulated that the deputy attorney general had handed in his resignation to the president, leading, once again, to fears over the future of the Mueller probe.

But that didn’t happen; Rosenstein stayed on through the 2018 midterm elections and even outlasted Sessions, whom Trump pushed out less than 24 hours after the polls closed.

Finally, in December, Trump nominated Bill Barr to permanently replace Sessions as attorney general. Rosenstein reportedly told colleagues that he expected to leave once Barr — who’d likely want to bring in his own team — was confirmed, though Rosenstein didn’t offer a set timeline. Barr was confirmed in February, and that led to a new round of reports that Rosenstein would depart by March, helping Barr transition and then leaving for good.

On February 20, the White House announced it would nominate Jeffrey Rosen to the deputy attorney general job, though Rosenstein remained in his position. That same day, reports indicated that Mueller’s investigation would be wrapping up imminently.

Imminently was a bit of an understatement: Mueller submitted his final report to Bill Barr on March 22. Rosenstein has since defended his handling of the Mueller investigation, firing back at critics of the probe and of his role in it.

“Today, our nation is safer, elections are more secure, and citizens are better informed about covert foreign influence schemes,” Rosenstein said at an event in the Yale club in New York last Thursday. “But not everybody was happy with my decision, in case you did not notice.”

The end of Mueller’s investigation — and the submission of Rosen’s nomination to the Senate shortly after that — made clear Rosenstein’s tenure was nearing its end. And next month, it will become official.

Rosenstein held one of the most scrutinized jobs in the Trump administration. His decision to appoint Mueller changed the course of Trump’s presidency. The fallout from the Mueller report is only beginning — but Bill Barr, rather than Rosenstein, will be dealing with it.

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