Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who has overseen Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation since Jeff Sessions’ recusal, is leaving the Justice Department. The confirmation hearings for William Barr, President Trump’s pick for attorney general, begin January 15th, and once Barr is confirmed, likely sometime in February, Rosenstein will step down, according to ABC News. Rosenstein reportedly made the decision on his own, and is not being forced out of his position by the White House.
Rosenstein took over Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation in March 2017 after then-attorney general Jeff Sessions recused himself from the inquiry when it was revealed that he failed to disclose contacts with Russian officials. Trump spent the better part of two years publicly excoriating Sessions for the, ultimately forcing his resignation following the midterms in November. As Mueller’s investigation has continued to develop, Rosenstein has also been the subject of routine criticism from the president and his allies, fueling speculation that he, too, could be forced out of his position.
In July, a group of 11 lawmakers introduced articles of impeachment against Rosenstein, accusing him of “high crimes and misdemeanors” while alleging that he was withholding information from Congress regarding the investigation. Nothing came of the bad-faith attempt to protect the president from the probe, but many continued to speculate that Rosenstein could be forced out. Later last summer, several outlets reported that Rosenstein was heading to a meeting at the White House, where he expected to be fired or asked to resign by President Trump. This never happened, either, nor did Rosenstein’s ouster once Sessions left the Justice Department in November, despite the president tweeting a meme showing several of his political opponents — and Rosenstein — in prison. “Now that collusion with Russia is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?” read the text.
According to ABC News, Rosenstein had planned to serve as deputy attorney general for around two years, and he will stay on through Barr’s confirmation to assure a smooth transition. Though Rosenstein’s office still managed the Mueller investigation, interim attorney general Matthew Whitaker, who was appointed after Sessions was removed, has been overseeing it, as well. Whitaker has criticized the probe publicly on several occasions, including in an August 2017 opinion piece for CNN. “It is time for Rosenstein, who is the acting attorney general for the purposes of this investigation, to order Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation to the four corners of the order appointing him special counsel,” Whitaker wrote.
Once confirmed, Barr will assume control of the probe. Like Whitaker, Barr has criticized Mueller’s investigation, and even wrote an unsolicited 20-page memo to the Justice Department arguing that the inquiry arose out of a “fatally misconceived” theory. Trump was aware of the memo prior to nominating Barr to take over as attorney general.
Rosenstein’s decision to step down is a sign he feels comfortable about the integrity of the investigation, which many believe could be wrapping up soon (a federal grand jury working with Mueller was recently extended for six months). But not everyone is thrilled that Trump will be able to appoint another sympathizer to a top post in the Justice Department, or that Barr will now be in total control of the investigation. “William Barr was sending freelance memos to the Trump administration making a case to undercut the Mueller investigation,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told CNN on Wednesday. “So the deep concern will be if he comes in and Rosenstein is gone, is this just a preface to either undercutting the investigation or trying to keep the results of it hidden from the American public.”