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What you need to know about Trump's pick to replace Rod Rosenstein at the DOJ

Trump’s nominee to become no. 2 at the DOJ has never worked there before.

by Greg Walters
Feb 20 2019, 7:20pm

President Donald Trump has picked a Department of Justice newbie to replace Rod Rosenstein, the official who launched and oversaw special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

For the no. 2 job at the DOJ, Trump chose Jeffrey Rosen, a Washington lawyer who’s never worked at the department he will now oversee. Rosen currently serves as the deputy secretary of transportation, following three decades in private practice with a D.C. law firm and years of previous legal work in other government roles. His lack of experience at the DOJ, however, is unusual for the role, which entails overseeing the day-to-day work of the department, according to experts.

If confirmed by the Senate, Rosen will take over a post that proved massively influential during the first two years of Trump’s presidency by unleashing Mueller’s Russia investigation and then shielding it from partisan attacks.

Rosenstein’s oversight of the Mueller probe followed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from investigation due to his role on the Trump campaign. Trump’s new attorney general, William Barr, doesn’t face the same obstacle, meaning that Mueller’s final report, when it ultimately lands, will fall on Barr’s desk.

During his tenure as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein oversaw the special counsel’s aggressive investigation into Trump’s links to Russia and the criminal charges dropped on the president’s allies, like his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and longtime confidant Roger Stone.

Rosenstein’s imminent departure raises questions about the current status of Mueller’s investigation — and whether it may soon be drawing toward a close. Rosenstein was reported in January to have said he would stay in his post until Mueller’s work was done. But Mueller may deliver his report to Barr as soon as next week, according to CNN.

The White House didn’t give an exact timeframe for Rosenstein’s departure, but media reports citing unnamed Department of Justice sources said that Rosenstein expects to step down in mid-March.

An unusual choice

The choice of a DOJ outsider to fill the department’s no. 2 slot suggests Barr, who was confirmed by the Senate just last week, is pulling in someone he trusts to become his top lieutenant as he asserts himself at the Department of Justice, according to Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York who assisted in the prosecution of former mob boss John Gotti.

Rosen worked for more than 30 years at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, the same firm where Barr was counsel before he was nominated to become attorney general. Rosen served as co-head of Kirkland’s Washington, D.C., office and a member of its global executive management committee. He litigated cases “in courts across the nation,” according to his Department of Transportation biography.

“His [Rosen’s] years of outstanding legal and management experience make him an excellent choice to succeed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has served the Department of Justice over many years with dedication and distinction,” Barr wrote in a statement praising Rosen’s nomination.

The two have known each other for decades, according to Thomas Yanucci, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “His [Rosen’s] 25-year long relationship with Bill Barr will allow the new team at Justice to get off to a fast start,” Yannucci said in a statement.

The deputy attorney general’s job is typically a hands-on, detail-oriented position, overseeing the work of the country’s 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices. Prior experience in the department is traditionally seen as a key asset.

But Barr already knows the the department well, having served as attorney general before under former president George H. W. Bush.

“It is unusual [to pick an outsider], because the job normally entails running the day-to-day operations at DOJ,” Cotter told VICE News. “But to the extent that he’s seen as being Barr’s right-hand guy, then it begins to make more sense.”

Previous work

Rosen, however, is no stranger to legal work for the federal government. Between 2003 and 2006, he served as general counsel at the Department of Transportation and held the same role with the Office of Budget Management between 2006 and 2009. After that, he briefly returned to his old firm, Kirkland & Ellis, where he remained until he joined the Trump administration in May 2017.

He was nominated for a federal judgeship by former President George W. Bush in 2008, though his confirmation didn’t pass through the Democrat-controlled Senate.

In Rosen’s most recent tenure as deputy secretary of transportation, he took the lead in efforts to try to roll back Obama-era rules fuel efficiency rules. His confirmation by the Senate to that position won a few Democratic votes, on the back of solid Republican support.

While he’s a new face at the DOJ, Rosen’s path to the top of the department appears less unorthodox than that of Matthew Whitaker, Trump’s pick to become acting attorney general in the immediate wake of the November midterms

Whitaker’s appointment drew criticism, in part, for his thin resume, which included a stint as a paid board member for an invention-promotion company based out of Florida that was eventually shuttered by a judge after being labeled a “scam” by the Federal Trade Commission. Although Whitaker had also served as a U.S. attorney, legal experts and former prosecutors suggested that his main qualification for the job appeared to be his public criticisms of the Mueller probe in appearances on cable TV.

In mid-2017, well before his promotion to the top of the Department of Justice, Whitaker publicly mused about how a new attorney general could reduce Mueller’s budget “so low that it grinds almost to a halt.” Whitaker later told Congress that he didn’t impede Mueller’s work.

Similar criticisms by Rosen, if he has made them, haven’t surfaced since his nomination was announced on Tuesday evening. A report in CNBC indicated that in April 2015, Rosen donated $100 to the campaign of Marco Rubio, one of Trump’s competitors for the presidential nomination.

“With Rosen, there’s a logic to it, and it doesn’t just seem political,” Cotter said. “Whitaker was an example of a more out-there kind of selection.”

Cover image: In this image provided by the Department of Transportation, deputy transportation secretary Jeffrey Rosen is shown in his official portrait in Washington. President Donald Trump has nominated Rosen to be the next deputy attorney general. (Department of Transportation via AP)