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Rosenstein Responds To Republican Critics


The deputy attorney general says he's going to do his job. Ordinarily, that would not be news, but it is news because Rod Rosenstein's job includes overseeing the Russia investigation, and some House Republicans who support President Trump have talked of impeaching Rosenstein. At a public event yesterday, Rosenstein said the Department of Justice, quote, "is not going to be extorted."


ROD ROSENSTEIN: And we're going to do what's required by the rule of law, and any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job.

INSKEEP: This morning, we've called a man who once had Rosenstein's job. Paul McNulty was deputy attorney general during the Bush administration and is now president of Grove City College. He joins us from Pennsylvania. Good morning, sir.

PAUL MCNULTY: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the threats against Rosenstein?

MCNULTY: Well, on the one hand, they're not new. Congress has been overseeing aggressively the Department of Justice for years. The issues change from time to time, of course, but the pressures have been around. This is unusual because you have a Republican-controlled Congress putting pressure on a Republican administration. That is a bit unusual as we look at the history of this kind of thing.

INSKEEP: Now, it's interesting what you just said - Congress overseeing the Justice Department aggressively for years. That sounds good, I suppose, but the question is, when do you go too far or make it a political effort?

MCNULTY: Exactly. I mean, there's a problem when the pressure is great to see documents that are highly confidential. The Department of Justice has to have a way of operating where the employees at the department have confidence that they can write candid analysis and opinions and not have those become the thing of, you know, political fodder. And that's why the Department of Justice has a history of resisting the delivery of certain documents to the Hill or access to some things. And typically, there is an accommodation that's made, some type of a balance that's struck in order for Congress to fulfill its responsibility but also to respect the independence of DOJ.

INSKEEP: I guess we should explain. This dispute with Congress in the broadest terms is about the investigation of President Trump, but the specific demand is to see documents. Republicans want to see documents on a surveillance warrant application for Carter Page, who at one time was a Trump campaign staffer. This seems to have been the earliest or one of the earliest moments at which the FBI began looking into connections to Russia. And Republicans want to know if this information was in some way based on information from the Clinton campaign. Why wouldn't Rosenstein provide documents that would show them that?

MCNULTY: Well, this is a tough, you know, position to be in for the Department and for Rod and others because, again, these are issues that the public has interest in, and there's a general desire for transparency. But there's still the need to understand the importance of independent investigations. And so that's why the department has historically tried to draw a circle around some documents, some communications, that are especially sensitive as investigations are conducted.

INSKEEP: Is there a problem with appearances, even aside from the substance here, that even if Republicans sincerely believe that they have a legitimate claim to a document, it just really looks bad that Republicans who so strongly support President Trump would go after people investigating people close to the president so strongly?

MCNULTY: Well, I think it looks bad in different ways. You know, I think it undermines that sense of independence and the public's confidence that the Department of Justice can function with impartiality. But, of course, that's what's at issue here. It's this - the allegations that there have been some kind of partiality or partisan motivations. And so this is not a pretty situation on either side. And what has to happen is some way of understanding that Congress sees the importance of the Department of Justice being fairly unique when it comes to how it operates and therefore treading carefully onto all of this but at the same time respecting the need for oversight.

INSKEEP: I want people to remember that there was a controversy when you were deputy attorney general which involved the firing of a number of U.S. attorneys and some question about how much the White House had to do with the dismissal of these U.S. attorneys. You got caught up in that. How much influence should a president have over who works at the Department of Justice?

MCNULTY: Well, I think there's a lot of things that the White House has a right role to play at the Department Justice, and I think personnel and policy are two areas where historically every administration has a great connection to DOJ. I think where it becomes problematic from the perspective of Congress or any other influences is when we get into case-specific issues and decisions. And so, you know, in the matter you cite, we saw aggressive - very aggressive and demanding - oversight by Congress. And, you know, for the most part, we were able to accommodate what they needed there and, you know, find the right balance.

INSKEEP: Is President Trump in a position where he simply has to stay out of personnel matters relating to this at all because he has stated such a very strong opinion that he thinks the investigation is a witch hunt and so forth?

MCNULTY: I think everybody needs to understand that the Department of Justice is going to be - serve the public the best when the public is - when the department is perceived as operating independently. And that's just an issue that we all have to be sensitive to, that this is not about any one person's agenda, but it's about the rule of law. And that's what Rod was trying to emphasize yesterday.

INSKEEP: Paul McNulty, thanks very much.

MCNULTY: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He was the deputy attorney general during the Bush administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.