Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who like his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has been publicly criticized by President Donald Trump, defended the Justice Department’s leadership during a speech on March 2 at the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s 32nd Annual National Institute on White Collar Crime in San Diego.
“You will not always agree with our policy decisions, and you definitely won’t hear this on cable TV, but the department leadership team appointed by President Trump is very strong on ethics and professionalism. History will reflect that the Department of Justice operated with integrity on our watch,” Rosenstein said in a prepared statement.
His speech came two days after President Trump blasted Sessions on Twitter for instructing Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to investigate the FBI’s activities surrounding surveillance of former campaign adviser Carter Page starting in late 2016, and on the heels of a Washington Post story that said President Trump privately refers to his attorney general as the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.
Rosenstein himself has not escaped the barbs of the president, who in news reports has called the deputy attorney general “weak,” a “threat” to his presidency, and last month asking Rosenstein if he was “on my team.”
Rosenstein, who said he began attending the white-collar seminars 27 years ago, said it was good to be in San Diego. “First of all, this is just about the farthest you can get from Washington, D.C., without leaving the continental United States,” he joked. “It is good for the soul to spend time beyond the Beltway,” he said.
Rosenstein, who was sworn in as the nation’s 37th deputy attorney general in April 2017 by Sessions, said he has served under nine attorneys general during his varied career at the Justice Department. “They taught me that the Department of Justice stands for the principle that every American deserves equal protection under the rule of law,” he said. “Our friends deserve it, and our enemies deserve it. They deserve it whether they are innocent or guilty. They deserve it whether they are rich or poor. They deserve it whether they are Republican or Democrat.”
“That requires us to be faithful to the pursuit of truth,” he continued. “For lawyers, truth is about credible evidence, not strong opinions.... People who seek the truth need to avoid confirmation bias. They must remain open to the possibility that the truth may not match their preconceptions. Pursuing truth means always yielding to the facts, even if they run contrary to our expectations.”
Rosenstein said that federal prosecutors exercise great care before alleging wrongdoing. He said the judicial officer must be concerned about what is legal. “What is right is a matter of personal opinion,” Rosenstein said. “What is legal is an objective issue of fact and law.”
Government officials who exercise discretion, he said, have a special obligation to make the right choice. “That requires experience, good judgment and wisdom.”
Rosenstein said he’s keenly aware that “controversy is part of the job” of being an attorney general and that mistakes will be made along the way. However, he said he pledged not to repeat any of the mistakes of previous department officials and that he now tries to pass that wisdom on.
“The rule of law is not just about words on paper. Any nation can write a good Constitution and adopt reasonable laws. The question is whether people will faithfully implement them. So, the rule of law depends on the character of the people who enforce the law.”
Rosenstein said that what you hear about on the news is a very small fraction of the work performed by the DOJ’s 115,000 employees.
“As I reflect on the accomplishments of the Department of Justice over the past year, I am proud of the remarkable dedication of our attorneys at Main Justice and the 94 United States Attorney’s Offices, of our FBI and other law enforcement agents and of the support staff and professionals who make our work possible,” he said, noting fraud convictions of 234 individuals by the DOJ in 2017. “We are aggressively pursuing crimes that pose imminent dangers, including terrorism, gang violence, drug trafficking, child exploitation, elder abuse and human smuggling. And we remain steadfast in combatting financial and economic crime.”
Rosenstein concluded his speech by noting that principled disagreement is essential in a democracy.
“In a time of strong political passions, lawyers have a special responsibility to demonstrate why law and logic are essential to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” he said.
The annual three-day gathering of the ABA’s national white-collar bar brings together more than 1,200 leading federal and state judges and prosecutors, law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, corporate in-house counsel and members of the academic community. This year’s lineup of speakers included a keynote speech by David Green, director of the UK’s Serious Fraud Office, and presentations from 13 federal trial and appellate judges.