Conflicts Abound Among Possible Rosenstein Replacements

News  |  Sep 28, 2018

With Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's job security in question earlier in the week, the Justice Department drafted a statement that would be issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, wishing Rosenstein well and announcing his immediate successors. 


The draft statement goes on to say that Sessions' chief of staff Matt Whitaker would go on to serve as his deputy, and that Noel Francisco, the Solicitor General, would serve as the Acting Attorney General overseeing the special counsel investigation.

Whitaker is controversial because he is a Trump loyalist who has weighed in publicly on the Russia investigation.


Before joining the administration, Whitaker frequently appeared on CNN as a legal commentator critical of the Russia probe. In one appearance last summer, he suggested Rosenstein could squeeze the Mueller budget as a way to placate the president. Whitaker also sided with Trump in an August 2017 CNN op-ed to argue that Rosenstein should rule as off-limits to federal investigators any examination of the Trump Organization or the president’s personal finances.

New York Times

Mr. Whitaker cuts the kind of central-casting figure whom Mr. Trump prefers, and he has served as what one White House aide called a “balm” on the relationship between the president and the Justice Department. He has frequently visited the Oval Office and is said to have an easy chemistry with Mr. Trump. On Monday morning, Mr. Trump himself called Mr. Whitaker, not with an explicit job offer but a reassurance that he has faith in him.


... if he were to choose Mr. Whitaker as a replacement over Mr. Rosenstein’s own deputy, Ed O’Callaghan, who would typically be next in line to be acting deputy attorney general, such a move would prove how much Mr. Trump has come to trust Mr. Whitaker.

As the acting deputy attorney general, Mr. Whitaker would oversee the nation’s federal prosecutors, including the investigations of Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, the Trump Organization and the business run by the father of [Jared] Kushner.

The Russia investigation would be overseen by the solicitor general, Noel J. Francisco. 

And while Noel Francisco comes with a conflict of interest, so do other potential Rosenstein replacements. 


Prior to joining the administration, Francisco was a partner at Jones Day, the law firm that represents the Trump presidential campaign in various matters, including a lawsuit the Democratic National Committee filed accusing the campaign of conspiring with the Russians to hack DNC servers and another suit stemming from the ouster of protesters from Trump campaign rallies.


... Next up would be Steven Engel, the assistant attorney general heading Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. But he worked at the law firm Dechert during a period when the firm was representing James Comey, whose May 2017 ouster as FBI director is at the center of the Mueller investigation into whether Trump tried to obstruct the Russia probe.

Engel’s conflicts also include a stint as a lawyer on the Trump transition team. While details of what he did there are unclear, legal experts warn that some of the issues central to the Mueller probe took place during the transition period between the November 2016 election and the presidential inauguration. In particular, investigators have been interested in contacts between Trump officials and their future Russian counterparts.


Behind Engel is John Demers, an assistant attorney general in charge of DOJ’s National Security Division. The former Boeing attorney doesn’t have any apparent conflicts in his background tied to his previous work. In fact, his office has been coordinating closely with the Mueller probe and Demers even joined Rosenstein at a July news conference rolling out indictments of a dozen Russian military officials accused of hacking into Democratic Party computer systems as part of a plot to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Demers’ work in the trenches of the Mueller investigation could put him in the same cross hairs with the president that Rosenstein faced.


The Justice officials immediately after Demers have their own conflicts. Next after Demers is Brian Benczkowski, the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s Criminal Division.

Benczkowski narrowly made it through his Senate confirmation after Democrats raised questions about his previous work at a law firm representing Alfa Bank, a major Moscow-based financial institution ... 


Next on the DOJ succession list after Benczkowski is Jody Hunt, who leads the agency’s Civil Division. But Hunt, a former chief of staff to Sessions who drafted the attorney general’s recusal plans on the Russia probe, has already promised senators he won’t play any role in the Mueller probe.


“Even if they do eventually find someone who can do it,” [Victoria Bassetti, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and a former top Democratic aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee] said, “it’s not a good fact pattern that you literally have to go rummaging around the hallways to find someone who can manage this investigation with integrity.”

Sessions Aide, a Trump Loyalist, Is Seen as Ascendant Amid Rosenstein Chaos (NYT)

‘Can you do this?’: Russia probe conflicts rampant among Rosenstein replacements (Politico)

Justice Department drafted exit statement for Rod Rosenstein (Axios)

Mueller's investigation of Trump is going too far ( opinion)