Rod Rosenstein on Monday defended the firing of ex-FBI Director James Comey, saying it was not only the right call, but denying it was an attempt to hinder the Russia investigation.
The former deputy attorney general, enjoying his first work day back in private life after two years as the No. 2 person at the Justice Department, also fleshed out the fateful days leading up to the firing, saying the White House never ordered him what to put in his memo justifying the firing.
And he said flatly that the Russia investigation was never in jeopardy while he was at the helm.
“I would never have allowed anyone to interfere with the investigation,” Mr. Rosenstein said in a speech to the Great Baltimore Committee, a regional business organization.
It was one of two speeches he gave Monday, delivering insights into how he approached his job while under fire first from President Trump, angry at the special counsel’s probe Mr. Rosenstein initiated, and later from Democrats angry that the probe didn’t result in criminal charges against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Rosenstein said said he doesn’t dislike Mr. Comey, but said the former FBI chief crossed “a bright line” when he held a press conference exonerating Ms. Clinton of criminal wrongdoing just months before the 2016 election.
The former deputy attorney general said not only did that break with practice, but it showed insubordination, since Mr. Comey acted without the approval of the attorney general.
Mr. Rosenstein called that Mr. Comey’s “clearest mistake.”
“Those actions were not within the range of reasonable decisions,” he said. “They were inconsistent with our goal of communicating to all FBI employees that they should respect the attorney general’s role, retain from disclosing information about criminal investigations, avoid disparaging uncharged persons and above all, not take unnecessary steps that could influence an election.”
Mr. Comey’s firing precipitated a crisis.
Mr. Rosenstein, acting as attorney general on all matters Russia-related after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, soon named Robert Mueller as special counsel to pick up the work Mr. Comey had been leading into whether the president had conspired with Russia to subvert the 2016 election.
Mr. Mueller finished his report two months ago, concluding there was no evidence of coordination — but suggesting the firing of Mr. Comey and nearly a dozen other episodes raised questions about whether the president attempted to obstruct justice.
Mr. Comey has since begun a public mission to say he still suspects Russian mischief with the president, and to say his firing was obstruction of justice.
But Mr. Rosenstein said that’s wrong.
“The special counsel’s report states that the president’s counsel advised me on a Monday afternoon that the president had decided to remove the director. It was news to me,” Mr. Rosenstein said in prepared remarks for Monday’s speech to the GBC. “Nobody said that the removal was intended to influence the course of my Russia investigation.”
While he didn’t dictate reasons, Mr. Trump did ask Mr. Rosenstein to include in his memo that Mr. Comey had repeatedly assured him that he wasn’t under investigation, according to the Mueller report.
Mr. Rosenstein said Monday he refused that request because he did not have personal knowledge of Mr. Comey’s assurances to the president, and besides they weren’t relevant to terminating Mr. Comey.
Looking back, Mr. Rosenstein said he would have handled the firing differently, but insisted it was the right decision.
“If I had been asked to make a recommendation before the removal decision was made, I would have included a more balanced analysis of pros and cons,” he said. “But my brief memo to the attorney general is correct and its as reasonable under the circumstances.”
Mr. Comey has had fierce words for Mr. Rosenstein in recent weeks.
He penned an op-ed in The New York Times saying the former deputy attorney general lacked the “character” to resign. He told Mr. Rosenstein and Attorney General William P. Barr the president had “eaten your soul.”
Then in a CNN town hall appearance last week, timed to coincide with two years since he was fired, Mr. Comey expanded on his criticism.
“I think people like that, like Rod Rosenstein, who are people of accomplishment but not real sterling character, strong character, find themselves trapped. And then they start telling themselves a story to justify their being trapped which is, ‘Yeah, he’s awful but the country needs me,'” Mr. Comey told the network.
Mr. Rosenstein on Monday blasted Mr. Comey’s media appearances, saying it was “disappointing” that the former FBI director is now “a partisan pundit,” interested in selling books and collecting speaking fees.
Meanwhile Democrats, who had cheered Mr. Rosenstein on for most of his tenure, calling him the bulwark against an expansive Trump White House, are now furious that the deputy attorney general agreed with Mr. Barr that the president couldn’t be charged.
Mr. Rosenstein, former U.S. attorney for Maryland, reminded his audience Monday night that he’d spoken to them two years ago, almost to the day. He’d been given an award for courage in government service.
“I probably did not deserve it at the time. I do not know whether I earned it since then. But I tried my best,” he said.
Mr. Roesnstein is skeptical of appointing special counsels, noting his current boss, Attorney General William P. Barr, appointed three in a span of 14 months during his first tenure at the helm of the Justice Department.
“But as a matter of discretion we should only appoint special counsels when necessary,” he said. “U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, and the inspector general can capably handle almost all cases. I was not a fan of independent counsels and I disfavor special counsels.”
Hours earlier he delivered the commencement speech to the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he urged graduates to find ways to stand up to pressure in tough circumstances.
And he pointedly quoted Mr. Mueller, the man he used to oversee.
“As Robert Mueller once said, ‘There [may] come a time when you will be tested. You may find yourself standing alone, against those you thought were trusted colleagues. You may stand to lose [all that] you have worked for. And [it may] not be an easy call,'” Mr. Rosenstein said in his prepared remarks.
In talking to the graduates Mr. Rosenstein summed up his time as the No. 2 at the Justice Department by recalling his days before taking office, when he assured his daughter his picture wouldn’t be in the paper because “nobody knows the deputy attorney general.”
“I was mistaken about that,” he said. “But I knew when I started that deputy attorney general is usually a controversial job. It is one of those jobs where you frequently need to make decisions that leave someone aggrieved. The median tenure is 16 months.”
Mr. Rosenstein lasted two years.
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