On Thursday, hundreds of high-powered defense lawyers and Justice Department employees packed into the DOJ’s cavernous Great Hall, which is reserved only for the most auspicious occasions. It was standing room only, and an overflow crowd gathered on the balcony overlooking the main floor.
A host of minor legal celebrities—from embattled ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn to Mueller probe alum Michael Dreeben—had all assembled to send off Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. His last day at the Justice Department is Saturday, and his send-off, much like his DOJ tenure, was much more dramatic than most deputy attorney generals’. And it brought together a mix of eclectic officials that reflected his colored—and controversial—time as the DOJ’s main manager: White House aide and loyalist Kellyanne Conway was there; so was Sen. Richard Burr, who just subpoenaed the president’s son.
They all assembled under the hall’s famous, imposing art-deco statues of the spirits of Justice. One statue has a bare breast, and former Attorney General John Ashcroft hid the statue behind a curtain during his time there (he said it was to make a better backdrop for TV cameras). For Rosenstein’s send-off, Mr. and Mrs. Justice stood uncovered, in all their aluminum glory.
Attorney General Bill Barr took the occasion to joke a bit about the House Judiciary Committee’s recent move toward holding him in contempt of Congress.
“Now, in those days, the deputy job was a lot different,” Barr said, referring to the year 1990, when Rosenstein started working at the Department. “But I’ll tell you now, the attorney general job is a lot different.”
“You like records,” he continued. “This must be a record for attorney general being proposed for contempt within a hundred days of taking office.”
There were a few chuckles.
Barr’s contempt troubles are the latest episode of the saga of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Rosenstein gave Mueller the job and outlasted criticism from congressional Republicans, Fox News hosts, and the president himself to see it through. But the end of the probe, which didn't find evidence that any Americans helped the Kremlin spread propaganda and hack Donald Trump’s political foes, isn't the end of the story. With Rosenstein’s apparent approval, Barr chose to decide for himself whether Trump committed a crime while trying to impede the investigation. Barr also opted to withhold redacted portions of Mueller’s final report from Congress. House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler subpoenaed the full report, Barr defied the subpoena, and now Nadler’s committee has moved to hold him in contempt.
So Rosenstein leaves the department in the midst of a congressional brawl. The speakers at his send-off ceremony found humor in the fact that he led the department into, through, but not out of a state of war.
Barr’s wasn’t the afternoon’s only laugh-ish line. Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, previously Rosenstein’s deputy, alluded to tense times in their office when he gave the event’s opening remarks.
“And because our work is so serious, thank goodness that we, and the DAG [deputy attorney general], had a very good sense of humor,” Hur said. “You’re going through tough times when you say, ‘Can’t make this sh-tuff up.’ You can either laugh or you can cry. And I remember a lot of laughter every day, and I certainly don’t remember any crying.”
The crowd cheered.
“To borrow a phrase from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in the ODAG [Office of the Deputy Attorney General].”
Later in the program, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke, addressing a roomful of lawyers and politicos who had watched with eyes peeled as Trump turned his time there into a soap opera, spending more than a year trying to humiliate him into un-recusing from the Russia probe. Sessions, like Hur, made jokes.
“When we came in, I had no doubt there would be a lot of controversies during my tenure,” he said.
“But in truth, I have to say, our run exceeded my expectations,” he added. “So when I recused, using the recent words of Attorney General Barr, the baby fell to Rod. The so-called collusion investigation became his and it was no little matter. There was a continual uproar. Decisions had to be made, and those decisions fell to him.”
Sessions praised Rosenstein’s decisions.
“He stayed the course during some of the most difficult times in the history of the department,” he said. “Though the investigation was ongoing when he arrived, he didn’t start it. And once started, to my observation over the years, these things just become unstoppable. They have to work their will.”
“Rod, you did your duty as it fell upon you,” he continued. “You didn’t ask for it, that’s for sure. You initiated the process, you followed the regulations. The system worked its will. What more can a public servant do?”
Sessions then reminisced about his tumultuous run as attorney general.
“We had many wonderful times, but things were often a bit not normal,” he continued. “I remember a dinner at a nearby restaurant, [Solicitor General] Noel Francisco and Rod and I, one night. The paparazzi caught us and even that dinner could mean some sort of message, it seemed.”
When Rosenstein spoke, he praised both attorney generals he served under.
“We stayed the course, and we accomplished what we set out to do,” he said. “There are many people in this room who stood with me to defend the ramparts of justice. When we are in the right, we keep moving forward. Our confidence is not naïve. It flows from an appreciation of the history and the traditions of this great institution.”
He also made comments that sounded like a vague reference to former FBI Director James Comey, whose public statements on the Hillary Clinton email investigation he famously criticized.
“Government officials sometimes face pressures to compromise principles, perhaps even to trade virtue for the appearance of virtue,” he said. “But we should exercise caution whenever unpleasant circumstances tempt us to disregard timeless principles. It is most important to follow the rules when the stakes are highest. Sticking with traditions is usually the best course—not always, but usually. After all, that is why they became traditions.”
Comey has spent his time in the public eye being remarkably candid about his views on ethics, philosophy, and thorny moral questions. But Rosenstein seemed to intimate in that comment that Comey overcomplicated things—using a lofty philosophical approach to wrestle with hard questions when simply consulting the rule-book would have sufficed.
Comey drew Rosenstein’s opprobrium for making detailed public comments on Clinton’s handling of a private email server a few months before the 2016 presidential election. Those comments—a jarring break from the Justice Department policy barring the release of damaging information about people who aren’t charged with crimes—hurt the Clinton campaign and boosted Trump.
A few months after being sworn in as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein wrote a memo detailing his criticism of Comey’s behavior. Shortly after receiving it, Trump fired Comey, who was then supervising the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference. White House aides pointed to Rosenstein’s memo to justify the firing, but Rosenstein later told Congress he hadn’t meant them to use it that way.
After Trump fired Comey, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to oversee the investigation–enraging the president and accelerating a probe that dominated his first year and a half in office.
But Rosenstein never balked on the substance of his memo on Comey. And his goodbye ceremony came on a date he likely remembered: the two-year anniversary of that firing.