On his first day in the ranks of the unemployed, former Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein gave the keynote address at the University of Baltimore School of Law’s commencement ceremony Monday in which he offered graduates advice on launching their legal careers.
Hours later, Rosenstein gave a far different speech before an audience of about 1,000 business, civic and political leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting. He offered a spirited defense of his decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and a pointed rebuke of recent criticism he had received from former FBI Director James Comey.
Rosenstein, who joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1990, served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland from 2005 to 2017. He was not a household name until 2017, when, as deputy attorney general, he found himself in the spotlight.
Shortly after taking over as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein wrote a memo that the White House initially sought to use to justify firing Comey. Days later, acting in place of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the presidential election.
In his remarks at the GBC dinner at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, Rosenstein offered little insight into his relationship with President Donald Trump or how he felt about the president’s repeated denouncements of Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”
But Rosenstein said it was clear to him, shortly after becoming deputy attorney general, that FBI investigators had amassed a critical mass of information and leads about Russian efforts to disrupt the U.S. presidential campaign. That, combined with the nation’s need to know with confidence what actually had happened, convinced him of the need to appoint a special counsel – and of the importance of protecting any investigation.
“I would never have allowed anyone to interfere in that investigation,” he said.
Rosenstein defended his memo critical of Comey’s handling of the FBI probe of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for government business. In particular, Rosenstein said, Comey’s decision to announce the disposition of the investigation usurped the role traditionally played by prosecutors and the Justice Department.
Rosenstein said he had “admired” Comey, and thought Trump’s firing of the FBI director should have been handled with “far more respect and far less drama.”
That admiration aside, he bluntly dismissed Comey’s criticisms contained in a May 1 New York Times op-ed written by the former FBI leader.
“ … how could Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, after the release of Mr. Mueller’s report that detailed Mr. Trump’s determined efforts to obstruct justice, give a speech quoting the president on the importance of the rule of law?” Comey wrote. “Or on resigning, thank a president who relentlessly attacked both him and the Department of Justice he led for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations”?
Trump, Comey concluded in his piece, forces those who serve him to compromise their values and surrender their integrity. “And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul,” Comey wrote.
Rosenstein said he had no interest in gauging the political outcome of Mueller’s report and was only focused on making sure it led to the truth. “You are not out to get anyone,” he said. “You are just out to follow the facts.”
Saying he found Comey’s conclusions “disappointing,” Rosenstein said he believed he had acquitted himself with honor.
“My soul and character are pretty much the same today as they were two years ago,” he said.
Earlier, Rosenstein told UB graduates at a packed house at the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric that he had not expected to become a household name.
“Before I went to Washington in 2017, my daughter asked whether I would get my picture in the newspaper,” Rosenstein said. “I said no. I told her that deputy attorney general is a low-profile job. Nobody knows the deputy attorney general. I was mistaken about that.”
Rosenstein focused his remarks on the unpredictability of careers and the importance of personal and professional integrity in the practice of law.
“Careers are unpredictable,” he said. “You surely will find yourself in unexpected places.”
He mentioned a friend who has long made a habit of reading newspaper obituaries.
“He reads obituary notices so he can learn how people sum up their lives. He reflects on what he reads and considers which accomplishments will feature in his own death notice,” Rosenstein said. “There is great wisdom in that practice.”
Rosenstein reminded the graduates that they were just at the start of their legal careers and said that life is not a sprint but a marathon: “When you get to the finish line, how you performed on each individual lap is not of much importance. The total is what counts.”
Speaking of personal and professional integrity, Rosenstein quoted the philosopher Richard Bach, who wrote, he said, “that you should live your life so that you will never be ashamed if anything you do or say is published around the world, even if it is cast in a false light.”
Said Rosenstein: “Wherever life takes you, conduct yourself with integrity so you will never need to look back with regret, even if the things said about you are not true.”
Rosenstein could not resist commenting about his new status as an unemployed prosecutor.
“This is a day of commencement for me as well,” he said. “After almost three decades, it is my first day as a former public servant.”