In 2005, Rod Rosenstein was asked by a local reporter from Maryland to name his role models.
Rosenstein picked just one: Robert Mueller.
Mueller, then FBI director, had served as the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts during the late 1980s. Rosenstein, as a young law student, landed an internship in Mueller’s Boston headquarters.
“I’ve been fortunate to have many [role models] over the course of my career,” Rosenstein told The Daily Record. “One is [Robert S. Mueller III], the head of the FBI. My first job in law enforcement was as an intern in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, when Mueller was the interim U.S. attorney up there.”
A little more than a decade later, facing a sprawling crisis that threatened to consume the highest reaches of government, Rosenstein returned to his “role model” once more. On May 17, 2017, less than a month after he was formally confirmed as deputy attorney general and eight days after President Trump fired former FBI chief James Comey, Rosenstein tapped Mueller to head the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
Since then, not only has Rosenstein shielded Mueller from a highly critical Trump, but in at least two pivotal points, he’s authorized new steps in the Russia investigation, legal experts and multiple people who know both men told VICE News. Each decision by Rosenstein resulted in the criminal conviction of a former top member of Trump’s inner circle: his ex–campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
Now, Rosenstein’s tenure at the DOJ appears under threat, as Trump reportedly weighs firing him. Rumors of Rosenstein’s exit have swirled since The New York Times reported in mid-September that Rosenstein had discussed the possibility of secretly recording Trump and recruiting Cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office.
If Trump fires Rosenstein, he would be rupturing one of the most important working relationships in Washington.
“It’s not a surprise that Rosenstein considers Robert Mueller a role model, because they seem to approach their jobs in similar ways.”
People who know both Mueller and Rosenstein personally described them to VICE News as kindred spirits, sharing a buttoned-up style and ramrod-strict approach to law enforcement. Both are lifelong Republicans with reputations for keeping politics out of their work. And a review of Rosenstein’s resume suggests he and Mueller operated in the same circles from the earliest days of Rosenstein’s career — starting from that initial exposure as an intern.
“I'm sure that helped Rod to make his decision to reach out to Mueller,” said Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official who led the department’s investigation into foreign election interference before Rosenstein appointed Mueller. “Who better to handle a sensitive investigation in a nonpartisan way?”
Democrats have warned that Rosenstein’s successor could have a decidedly different relationship with Mueller. And in at least one sense, they’re likely right. Whoever Rosenstein’s replacement turns out to be, odds are it won’t be someone who launched his legal career with a life-changing experience in Mueller’s office.
“He clearly does have confidence in Mueller, and there’s obviously a deep history behind that feeling of confidence that goes back many years,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean at Cornell Law School. “A new person might not have as much faith in Mueller.”
ROSENSTEIN AND THE PROBE
In May 2017, Washington was thrown into crisis after Trump fired then–FBI Director Comey as the bureau’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia was heating up. Rosenstein’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from investigating the campaign that he himself had taken part in.
The decision then fell to Rosenstein, who just 21 days into the job, faced the difficult decision to appoint a special counsel. The regulations called for him to pick “a lawyer with a reputation for integrity and impartial decision-making.” Rosenstein tapped Mueller.
“In some ways, this was an impossible task,” said Cornell’s Ohlin. “He had to pick someone who didn’t just seem right for the job. He had to know they were — for sure. I think that’s what he had here, because he got to see Mueller over the course of many different roles and many different years.”
“He’s clearly involved in various steps, and has allowed various steps to go forward.”
The decades-old internship doesn’t appear to present any kind of conflict of interest that might be relevant to their current work together on the Russia probe, legal experts told VICE News.
Rosenstein’s original order appointing Mueller included sweeping language authorizing the special counsel to investigate not just links between the Trump campaign and Moscow but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Since then, the exact details of the Mueller investigation remain famously difficult to penetrate. But Rosenstein’s initial decision to grant Mueller a broad mandate has allowed the investigation to explore areas outside the question of Trump and Russia, legal observers said.
Case in point: Paul Manafort.
Rosenstein explicitly approved Mueller’s pursuit of Manafort over his work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and related accusations of tax and bank fraud, according to a document presented in Manafort’s trial.
That decision may prove critical to the outcome of the investigation. After Manafort was convicted on bank and tax fraud charges in August, he flipped, and struck a sweeping agreement to tell Mueller’s investigators everything he knows, including about the Trump campaign.
Rosenstein also personally approved the FBI raids against Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen in April, according to The New York Times. Cohen pleaded guilty in August, and has reportedly provided hours of testimony to Mueller’s team.
Rosenstein could have blocked the moves against Manafort or Cohen if he’d deemed either “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued,” in the language of the special counsel regulations, legal experts pointed out.
And he could have done so quietly. Rosenstein would only have had to tell Congress about any decision to deny requests by the special counsel after Mueller finished his investigation, according to McCord and others.
“I think it’s right to say that Rosenstein is doing more than just trying to stand in the way of Mueller getting fired,” said McCord. “He’s clearly involved in various steps, and has allowed various steps to go forward.”
Mueller’s team itself recently argued in court that Rosenstein, as the acting Attorney General with regard to the special counsel investigation, has the power to stop specific actions he deems inappropriate.
“The Attorney General receives a regular flow of information about the Special Counsel’s actions,” Mueller’s team wrote in a legal filing. “He can demand an explanation for any of them; and he has power to intervene when he deems it appropriate to prevent a deviation from established Departmental practices.”
“There’s reason to believe that whoever ends up in charge of the Mueller investigation may well curtail it in a way that Rosenstein would not have done.”
Manafort and Cohen might never have become cooperating witnesses and convicted felons if Trump had replaced Rosenstein early on, legal observers said.
Much has been written about the threat Trump poses to Mueller, especially if he fires Rosenstein. But legal experts said a replacement could hamper the investigation while avoiding the political uproar that firing the special counsel might unleash. Rosenstein’s successor could frustrate the investigation in ways Rosenstein hasn’t, including by slow-rolling decisions or slashing the budget, observers said.
The special counsel regulations likewise grant the official overseeing the probe the authority to decide whether any final report by Mueller should be released to the public, or shoved in a drawer, experts said.
“There’s reason to believe that whoever ends up in charge of the Mueller investigation may well curtail it in a way that Rosenstein would not have done,” said David Kris, who served as assistant attorney general for national security under former president Barack Obama, after working as associate deputy attorney general under Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush.
THE INTERN AND THE U.S. ATTORNEY
During his Senate confirmation hearing last year, Rosenstein described his internship in Mueller’s Boston office as a life-altering experience.
“During my senior year of college, I read a newspaper article about the large salaries paid to law firm associates,” Rosenstein told the Senate. “I remember thinking that I probably would be in their shoes in a few years. But something intervened and caused me to take a different path: I served as an intern for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.”
That office had such an impact on the aspiring lawyer, he said, that he resolved to work with government law officials like those he’d met on Mueller’s staff.
“The federal prosecutors, agents and support employees who worked there were men and women of great intellect and integrity,” Rosenstein said. “They spoke about doing the right thing and keeping people safe, and they took immense pride in their careers. I aspired to work with professionals like them.”
“Mueller was already a legendary figure.”
While it’s unclear whether the two men ever spoke a single word to each other at this time, by then, Mueller was already renowned in law enforcement circles.
Mueller became interim U.S. Attorney in late 1986, after his former boss, William F. Weld, was hired away to a new job in Washington. Mueller and Weld had already assembled an uncommonly strong legal team, according to Paul Kelly, whom Mueller hired as a prosecutor to join the Boston office in 1987.
“We had a crackerjack group of lawyers at the time, and Bob was the leader,” Kelly told VICE News. “It really was an impressive group of people.” Weld, Kelly noted, went on to become governor of Massachusetts. The office had some 40-50 interns at a time, according to Kelly, who didn’t recall meeting Rosenstein among them.
Mueller had already cultivated a following in legal circles, according to William Weinreb, who was an intern there during the summer of 1987.
Weinreb and Rosenstein both attended Harvard Law School starting in 1986, and got to know each other while working on the Harvard Law Review, Weinreb said. As a law student, Rosenstein reportedly joined the conservative Harvard Federalist Society, which gave him its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006.
“Mueller was already a legendary figure,” Weinreb told VICE News. “He was regarded as being the epitome of what the Department of Justice stood for, and what it was all about.”
A former Marine who won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam, Mueller had arrived in Boston as Assistant U.S. Attorney in 1982.
As interim U.S. Attorney, Mueller oversaw the investigation of Lyndon LaRouche, a repeat candidate for president branded an “extremist” by The New York Times. LaRouche was later convicted of scheming to defraud the IRS and deliberately defaulting on more than $30 million in loans from his supporters.
Weinreb said he didn’t remember encountering Rosenstein as an intern at the U.S. Attorney’s office. But he said his own internship lined up exactly with Rosenstein’s description, and that he left with a sense of deep admiration for those he'd met in that office.
“I had the exact same experience,” he said. “It completely changed my life.”
Inspired by his internship in Boston, Weinreb, too, became a prosecutor, before rising to serve as acting U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts himself.
“It would be difficult to rank which one is more by-the-book, which is more apolitical. They both epitomize that.”
After graduating from Harvard, Rosenstein moved to Washington, where he got another job — again, working for Mueller. He took a position with the Public Integrity Section of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, which was then headed by Mueller, who’d risen to Assistant Attorney General.
Multiple people personally acquainted with both Rosenstein and Mueller described the two men as sharing the same strict approach to law enforcement and straight-laced style.
“They’re very similar,” said Doug Gansler, the former attorney general of Maryland, who has worked with both Rosenstein and Mueller over the years. “It would be difficult to rank which one is more by-the-book, which is more apolitical. They both epitomize that.”
“They’re kindred spirits,” said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “It’s not a surprise that Rosenstein considers Robert Mueller a role model, because they seem to approach their jobs in similar ways.”
“As a matter of temperament, I imagine they’d get along quite well,” said Robert Deitz, former general counsel at the National Security Agency. “Neither of them is Mr. Chuckles.”
McQuade and McCord both said the two men likely crossed paths after Rosenstein became U.S. Attorney in Maryland in 2005, when Mueller was already FBI director.
“There’s no way they wouldn’t have met,” McCord said. “When you’re a U.S. attorney, you work with the Bureau on lots of things.”
Their personal sense of style even dovetails, according to people who know them. Mueller, famously, wears only white shirts — reportedly believing that even a blue shirt represents an unacceptable compromise to his integrity.
“He really does only wear white shirts, and either a red or blue tie,” McCord said. “And have you ever seen a single hair out of place on Rod’s head?”
Cover image: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein poses for a photograph for the Associated Press at the Department of Justice, Friday, June 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)