Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein suggested he was uncomfortable with former FBI director James Comey’s decision to leak contents of a memo detailing an encounter between him and President Donald Trump where the president – according to Comey’s interpretation of events – pressured him to drop an FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.
Rosenstein’s comments were made during an interview with Fox News that’s set to air Wednesday at 7 p.m. During the interview, a partial transcript of which was shared with the Washington Post, Rosenstein said those who work for the Justice Department have an obligation to keep documents about ongoing matters confidential.
“Asked by Fox News’s Martha MacCallum whether it would ‘ever be proper’ for the FBI director to ‘make notes of a conversation in that regard and leak them to the press,’ Rosenstein responded, according to a partial transcript provided by Fox News,
‘As a general proposition, you have to understand the Department of Justice. We take confidentiality seriously, so when we have memoranda about our ongoing matters, we have an obligation to keep that confidential.’
When MacCallum said she interpreted his answer as indicating he would not approve the release of a memo about a conversation with the president, the deputy attorney general reiterated his position.
‘As a general position, I think it is quite clear. It’s what we were taught, all of us as prosecutors and agents,’ Rosenstein said, according to the transcript.”
Comey acknowledged during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that he had asked a friend to share with the press the contents of a memo he wrote following an interaction with Trump in which Trump told him of Flynn: “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” The request, by Comey’s account, came after a meeting in the Oval Office, and the president first cleared the room of other officials.
Comey said he asked that the memo be leaked to pressure the Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, though Comey stopped short of accusing Trump of obstruction of justice stemming from their conversation about Flynn. He got his wish. After the New York Times reported on the leaked material, Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to lead the investigation.
Since then, a bevy of Republicans including Newt Gingrich have raised questions about the possibility of a conflict arising from the longtime friendship between Comey and Mueller, whose two families have vacationed together. Now, Comey is a key witness in an investigation being directed by Mueller.
That Rosenstein does not approve of Comey’s behavior is perhaps no surprise, according to WaPo.
“Rosenstein authored a memo that lambasted Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, laying out the case that Comey should be replaced as FBI director. The memo was initially cited by White House officials as a reason Trump fired him, though the president later said he intended to do so no matter what leaders in the Justice Department recommended.”
Rosenstein’s role as the highest-ranking DOJ official overseeing Mueller’s investigation – a role he assumed after Attorney General Jeff Session’s decided to recuse himself – has put him in an awkward position, as WaPo explains.
“After Comey was fired, Mueller began investigating whether the president might have attempted to obstruct justice. Given Rosenstein’s role in Comey’s firing, it seems possible that he could become a witness in that case. Rosenstein still technically can remove Mueller or veto his decisions, though he does not have day-to-day supervisory authority over the investigation.”
During the Fox interview, Rosenstein said he appointed Mueller “based upon his reputation” and noted there was “bipartisan support for his integrity.” But Rosenstein expressed discomfort with the fact that so many members of Mueller’s team have donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“The Department of Justice, we judge by results, and so my view about that is: we’ll see if they do the right thing,” Rosenstein said.
As we’ve reported previously, nearly every member of Mueller’s team has contributed to Democratic candidates.
Rosenstein’s boss Sessions previously told “Fox & Friends” that Mueller was “entitled lawfully, I guess at this point, to hire who he desires, but I think he should look for people who have strength and credibility by all people.”
Pressed on whether he had confidence in Mueller, Sessions had said: “I feel confident in what he’ll do. That’s all I can say to you about that.”
Rosenstein has repeatedly denied that he could be pressured into firing Mueller, saying during Congressional testimony last month that, if Trump wants to fire Mueller, he’d need to fire Rosenstein first.
“I am not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate,” he said, at the hearing, explaining that under federal regulations, Mueller can only be fired for good cause and that reason would have to be put in writing. The deputy AG also said that Mueller may be fired "only for good cause and I am required to put that cause in writing."
In summary, Rosenstein’s comments about Comey's decision to leak suggests that, if support for an investigation into Comey’s conduct continues to metastasize, he wouldn't be opposed to ordering an investigation into the former FBI director.