Former Deputy AG Rosenstein talks Capitol insurrection, 'chaotic' Trump administration, leaks and regrets

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke to FOX 5’s Lindsay Watts in his first television interview since resigning from the Justice Department in 2019. 

The full interview is part of FOX 5’s Siege on Democracy podcast that examines the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

LISTEN:  Siege On Democracy: Full Interview with Rod Rosenstein

Rosenstein described the Trump administration as chaotic and said the last two years were his most challenging during his 30-year career at DOJ. 

"Attorney General Jeff Session described the president’s campaign, President Trump’s campaign, as being chaos from day one. That’s a quote," said Rosenstein. "And certainly the start of the administration was chaotic and things remained chaotic really throughout which makes it a particularly challenging environment to operate in the Department of Justice. Our responsibility at the Justice Department was to respect the president’s authority, you couldn’t just disregard the president, you had to respect his authority. But you also had to enforce legal and ethical rules that don’t apply to the president." 

He cited Trump’s public criticism when DOJ announced indictments for two Republican members of Congress, Rep. Duncan Hunter and Rep. Chris Collins. Trump later pardoned both of them. 

"The biggest challenge for me was the fact that the president would call on DOJ to do things that we just couldn’t do," Rosenstein said. "And one incident in particular that stands out in my mind was that he attacked the department when we charged Republican congressmen for committing serious crimes. And that makes it very difficult when I was trying to reassure the 115,000 employees at the Department of Justice that the traditional rules still applied and the most importantly among those is we cannot consider political affiliation in our prosecutorial decisions." 

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There were reports that Rosenstein said he wanted to wear a wire to record President Trump and discussed removing him from office. Watts asked if he ever questioned whether Trump was fit for office. 

"Well it depends on what you mean by the word fit," said Rosenstein. "There was a lot of talk about whether the president should have been removed under the 25th Amendment. I don’t believe that. I mean, I think the president was capable of doing the job. Doesn’t mean I agree with the way he did it." 

When asked whether he really suggested wearing a wire Rosenstein laughed. 

"I had a conversation with Andrew McCabe about an investigation that he was conducting involving the president. And there was a discussion about whether or not the president would be recorded in the course of that investigation. I never intended to wear a wire and I think if that if Mr. McCabe asked me to a wear a wire we would’ve had to reconsider the whole thing. Because you can’t run an investigation and serve as a witness," Rosenstein said. 

McCabe was acting director of the FBI at the time and one of the people who has said this discussion happened. Rosenstein said people he worked with often leaked stories that weren’t true. 

"I know there are people who had it in for me, including people at very high levels of the administration," Rosenstein said.  

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When asked who it was specifically Rosenstein replied, "Well I don’t think it was any one person. One of the things I experienced, Lindsay, was obviously you expect to get criticized in this job, but there were some stories that people started that were 100 percent fabricated." 

Rosenstein got it from both sides. President Trump called him "totally conflicted" and once re-tweeted a meme that featured an image of Rosenstein in jail for treason. There was also backlash from Democrats, specifically over the Trump administration’s family separation policy that separated migrants from their kids at the border. 

"There are tremendous problems in sorting out what to do about immigration and I don’t believe we got it right," he said. "I hope the Biden administration gets it right. But they are very difficult problems." 

He said he has regrets from his time in his role, and the family separation policy is up there. 

"That would be at or near the top of the list," he said. 

He said history has not been fully written on the Trump presidency. 

"The first version of history is written by people who leak and as I mentioned they have their own biases," said Rosenstein. "So I think information will emerge over time." 

As far as those charged in the Capitol riot, Rosenstein said he believes many accused of misdemeanor charges, who are not alleged to have been violent, could avoid time behind bars. 

 "I think a lot of them will avoid jail time, that’s assuming that they’re all charged," said Rosenstein. "And the reason for that is that many of these people were first offenders and for non-violent first offenders often there is a pretty good argument by the defense for limited jail time. That doesn’t mean they get no punishment. They have a criminal conviction, they may be under probation supervision for a period of time, but they won’t necessarily get jail time." 

Watts asked if he believed President Trump incited the riot. 

"I think as a factual matter, clearly the president’s words up to and including Jan 6. had an influence on the rioters. As a legal matter, the government would face challenges in prosecuting him," said Rosenstein. 

He said Trump could use the First Amendment as a defense and there is a higher standard in criminal cases than in impeachment proceedings.  

"I wouldn’t want to speculate on what the government might consider, in this particular, it’s a unique case obviously," said Rosenstein. "Everything the president said and did publicly was known. So if I were investigating the case I’d want to know what the president said and did privately. That is, what was going on between the president and his staff immediately before and during the riots." 

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