“It’s not personal.”
Simple words delivered by a straight-faced Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who is a leader in the conservative House Freedom Caucus, to the number two in command at the Justice Department.
Yet that day and the last 14 months of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s tenure might leave one with another impression.
When Rosenstein showed up for the hearing at the Rayburn House Office Building that muggy day in June, Republicans on Capitol Hill accused him of all manner of misconduct, while Democrats rushed to his aide.
This week, after countless threats, a small, but vocal faction of House Republicans moved from talking about their disappointment in Rosenstein to actually laying the initial steps for his impeachment. The move, derided by Democrats as “dangerous” and even some Republicans as a “sham,” ultimately proved to be a non-starter once House leadership intervened, at least for now. But it marked the most aggressive step that conservative allies of President Donald Trump have taken in their feud with Rosenstein to date and it served as a reminder of how Rosenstein’s appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the Russia investigation has produced some striking political alliances.
The most concrete evidence yet of an ironic twist for the deputy attorney general: Rosenstein – a lifelong Republican appointed by a Republican president and now overseeing the work of Mueller, a Republican – has largely been held up as a white knight on the left.
Wednesday night, as the news of the impeachment resolution broke, former Justice Department officials under the Obama administration tweeted their support with #IStandWithRod.
“Anybody who stands up for the rule of law today is a hero,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “Everything we believe in is under attack. The Constitution is under attack, the rule of law is under attack. So law enforcement officials who do their job are heroes of the republic.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said he wasn’t surprised by all the love coming from Democrats. He’s known Rosenstein for years, where he served as a US attorney in Baltimore under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama kept him on.
“When you’ve got integrity, which Rosenstein has, you don’t have to go figure out what a poll says, you just do what you know is right,” Cummings told CNN.
Yet Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retiring Florida Republican on the House Intelligence Committee who has defended Rosenstein, also predicted the Democratic affection would not last.
“When a Republican becomes a hero of the Democrats, it’s a short-lived romance,” she said.
To be sure, Rosenstein is no liberal. He worked under Ken Starr handling the Whitewater investigation into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Arkansas business dealings. Under his watch at the Trump-era Justice Department, no federal charges have been pursued thus far against a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner and a journalist’s records were seized as part of a leak investigation.
Earlier this month in Aspen, Rosenstein received a standing ovation from the crowd, where he announced the Justice Department’s new task force to combat cyber security threats. But as Washington Post national security reporter Shane Harris noted on Twitter: “That’s not why people are standing.”
Indeed, Rosenstein has managed to successfully course correct a reality that seemed far less likely when liberals blasted him for writing a memo that was seen as the pretext used by Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey, while simultaneously eschewing the projections placed upon him.
“I’m not a Democrat, and I’m not angry,” Rosenstein told lawmakers during his fiery testimony last month.
Meanwhile, pundits on Fox News call for his ouster on a daily basis, Trump has dismissed him as “a Democrat” overseeing a baseless investigation, and conspiracy theorists have labeled him part of the liberal “deep state” at the Justice Department out to get the President.
Some on the right in politics and in the Justice Department shake their heads at this, cringing at the Democratic lovefest and Republican attacks.
“The guy is a lifelong Republican,” said one Republican operative who supports Trump, but asked to remain anonymous to discuss Rosenstein freely. “What are we talking about here? An investigation which, as of now, has indicted a bunch of Russians. … It’s fair to question his decision-making, but I think it’s completely ridiculous to question his motives.”
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Yet Republican leadership in Congress empowered those in the party who have hit Rosenstein the hardest.
When House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes, a California Republican, has accused the Justice Department of “stonewalling” his efforts to obtain highly-sensitive documents related to the Russia investigation for the past several months, House Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly backed him up over Rosenstein.
His friends say he’s managed to maintain his cool, even as speculation of his termination flares up from time to time, and running one of the most high stakes investigations in modern history has also caused him to develop a thick skin.
He’s “shockingly fatalistic,” said Jim Trusty, an attorney at Ifrah Law in Washington and a former Justice Department colleague, but “when he feels his character is being attacked he’s going to respond like a normal guy, not a politician – he’s not going to take it lying down.”
At an event at the Newseum in May, his frustration with Capitol Hill was evident.
“There have been people who have been making threats privately and publicly against me for quite some time,” Rosenstein said, “and I think they should understand by now, the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”
He also took a not so subtle jab at Capitol Hill in announcing new charges against 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee, saying: “We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings.”
But most days at the Justice Department he wears a smile on his face, often breezing past the press room with a polite wave, as a small framed mantra in his office sums up the last 14 months: “Keep moving forward.”