Deputy Attorney General-designate, federal prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Deputy Attorney General-designate, federal prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 7, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Just two weeks into his new post as deputy attorney general of the United States, a little-known career prosecutor suddenly finds himself at the center of a seething political storm.

Rod Rosenstein took the No. 2 spot at the Department of Justice in late April after serving as the U.S. attorney for the state of Maryland for nearly 12 years.

Long respected for his integrity and impartiality, Rosenstein was overseeing the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.

But on Wednesday, the 52-year-old Rosenstein found himself at the receiving end of some of the harshest criticism of his career after President Donald Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, citing a memo in which Rosenstein blistered Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

FILE - Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in Wa
FILE - Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks in Washington, March 6, 2017.

While Rosenstein stopped short of calling for Comey's dismissal, Trump used the memo to justify firing the head of an agency investigating his presidential campaign's ties to Russia. That action led to calls on Rosenstein to recuse himself from the investigation.

During his Senate confirmation hearing in March, Rosenstein said he'd appoint a special prosecutor "whenever I determine it is appropriate."

Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had supported Rosenstein's nomination, said the time has arrived.

"If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Senate vote

In the Justice Department, the attorney general effectively serves as "chairman" and the deputy attorney general as "chief operating officer" of a department with more than 100,000 personnel, said George Terwilliger, a deputy attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush.

To be successful, Terwilliger said, a deputy attorney general must not only have extensive experience in criminal justice but also an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Justice Department.

"Mr. Rosenstein has all of that requisite experience," Terwilliger said in an interview before Rosenstein's confirmation.

Rosenstein's career spans a 14-year stint in senior positions at the Justice Department and nearly 12 years as the top federal prosecutor for the state of Maryland.

Former colleagues and others who have worked with Rosenstein over the years describe him as calm and cool-headed, with a reputation for fairness and a commitment to public service.

"He's an extremely able, fair and just federal prosecutor," said Steve Silverman, a Baltimore-based defense attorney whose office has defended cases brought by Rosenstein's office.

Rosenstein is a registered Republican, but he has made no campaign donations to any political candidates, according to election records.

And for an administration known for staffing senior positions with business and financial elites, Rosenstein is an outlier in his modest wealth. In a public disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Rosenstein listed assets valued between $84,000 and $385,000.


In 1991, two years out of Harvard Law School, Rosenstein joined the Justice Department as a trial attorney in the public integrity section, the unit in charge of prosecuting public corruption cases.

Former Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who supervised Rosenstein at the time, recalled him as "a very talented and gifted attorney."

"Even at an early age, he exhibited the sound judgment and careful thought that was necessary to handle the very sensitive public corruption cases that were prosecuted by the section," Cole wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rosenstein rose through the Justice Department's ranks to become counsel to the deputy attorney general and, eventually, principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Tax Division.

In 1995, independent counsel Kenneth Starr tapped him as an associate counsel for his investigation of former President Bill Clinton's Whitewater financial dealings. The investigation shut down in 1997 without any criminal charges.

In 2005, former President George W. Bush nominated Rosenstein to serve as the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, one of 94 districts in the federal court system.

U.S. attorneys, who are presidential appointees, typically leave with a change in administration, but Rosenstein has held the position under three presidents, becoming the longest-serving U.S. attorney.

FILE - Former Maryland Governor Bob Ehrlich speaks
FILE - Former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich speaks in in Henniker, N.H., Feb. 24, 2015.

Cross section of support

Rosenstein's nomination has drawn the support of a cross section of current and former officials in Maryland.

Robert Ehrlich, who served as governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, wrote that Rosenstein "inherited a difficult situation" in 1995 when Baltimore, the state's largest city, faced a crime epidemic. Under his watch, however, homicides and other violent crimes declined before a surge in 2015.

Rosenstein's critics, though, have charged him with being soft on law enforcement.

In a questionnaire provided by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rosenstein listed the investigation and prosecution of James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for leaking classified information to journalists as one of the 10 most significant cases he personally litigated.

Cartwright pleaded guilty after a four-year investigation, but President Barack Obama pardoned him before leaving office.

As a presidential appointee, Rosenstein will be carrying out Trump's law enforcement agenda, Terwilliger said.

That may mean focusing on Attorney General Sessions' goals of combating violent crime and illegal immigration.