President Trump is using a memo written by the newly confirmed deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to justify his firing of the FBI director, putting an unusual spotlight on Rosenstein. Though little known until now, Rosenstein is a veteran government attorney who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans and has been widely praised for being professional and non-partisan.
But despite his straight-and-narrow reputation, he earned criticism from Democrats during his confirmation hearing when he refused to commit to a special prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in last year's presidential election.
In his memo to the attorney general, Rosenstein criticized James Comey's handling of the conclusion of his investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails and his refusal to accept what Rosenstein described as the "nearly universal judgment" that he had been wrong. The FBI's reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, Rosenstein wrote.
The deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said after Comey's firing that the administration had complete confidence in Rosenstein.
Asked about a special prosecutor on Wednesday, she said, "We don't think it's necessary."
But Democrats are rejecting the idea that Trump jettisoned Comey over how he had treated Clinton and are using the dismissal to renew calls for a special prosecutor or for an independent investigation, which some Republicans support.
As the crisis over Comey's firing plays out, here are six things to know about Rosenstein.
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New to the Job
Rosenstein was confirmed in his job by a 94-6 U.S. Senate vote only two weeks ago, promoted from within the Justice Department. His hearing focused on the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, which Rosenstein now heads because U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself over contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Authority to Appoint Special Prosecutor
Rosenstein has the authority to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate Russia's actions during the 2016 election, as Democrats are calling for. At his confirmation hearing, he said he was "not in a position to answer" the question of whether he would name a special prosecutor because he had not read a report on the alleged meddling. He said that if he thought officials were wrong he would "overrule them." Some Democrats found his answer inadequate and demanded he commit to a special prosecutor.
But on Thursday, after Comey's firing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California, called on Rosenstein and Sessions to recuse themselves from the appointment of a special counsel. The matter should be handled instead by the most senior career attorny at the Justice Department, she said in a statement. Rosenstein's memo read like a "political document" that appeared to "have been hastily assembled to justify a preordained outcome," she wrote.
Experience with Special Prosecutors
As a young Justice Department lawyer, Rosenstein was part of Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation into Bill and Hillary Clinton's real estate dealings, according to reports. The Harvard Law School graduate has worked for the DOJ for 26 years. He served in the tax and the public integrity divisions and as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland before becoming the state's U.S. attorney. He was appointed in 2005 by former President George W. Bush, confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and kept on by President Barack Obama.
Rosenstein has experience in another area of interest to Trump: leaks. Former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder named Rosenstein as one of two U.S. attorneys to investigate the leaking of classified national security information in 2012, according to The Washington Post. As a result, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Rosenstein has been described as a non-partisan, straight shooter who has worked for both Democratic and Republican presidents, according to NBC News and The Guardian. A former boss in the Clinton Justice Department, Philip Heymann, told The Guardian that he was surprised Trump had not chosen someone more partisan. The Baltimore Sun says Rosenstein has a reputation for putting the law over politics. Democrats are now appealing to him to restore faith in the U.S. criminal justice system. "The American people’s trust in the criminal justice system is in Mr. Rosenstein's hands," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
How the Memo Came About
A senior administration official told NBC News that Rosenstein and Sessions met with Trump on Monday at the White House to talk about Comey's leadership of the FBI. When Trump said that he had some concerns about Comey, Rosenstein said that he did, too, the official said. "Both had reached the same conclusion about Comey," the official said. Trump asked the men to put their thoughts on paper, which led to the memo. Comey's firing came after he had asked Rosenstein for more staff and money for the Russia investigation. On Thursday, in an exclusive interview with NBC News' Lester Holt, Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of a recommendation.