For nearly two years, Democrats figured Rod Rosenstein was their man in the Mueller investigation. They fought vehemently to keep him from being fired. They even went to court to try to make him acting attorney general.
Republicans, meanwhile, were so furious with the deputy attorney general that some drew up articles of impeachment last year.
Yet it was Mr. Rosenstein who spent the weekend ensconced with new Attorney General William P. Barr, reading special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, then joining in the conclusion that President Trump not only didn’t engage in any conspiracy to subvert the 2016 election, but also should not be charged with obstruction of justice.
Experts say Democrats unfairly decided Mr. Rosenstein was their Trump-slayer, when he was simply a government official trying to manage a fair investigation.
“I remember when Rosenstein supposedly was going to be fired and all the Democrats were increasingly concerned, thinking that he was on their side,” said Ian Prior, a former Justice Department official. “He wasn’t on anyone’s side — he was on the side of the rule of law and a fair but thorough investigation.”
In the aftermath of Mr. Mueller’s report and its no-collusion conclusion, Democrats’ feelings toward Mr. Rosenstein have shifted.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, said Sunday that senators must haul him, along with Mr. Barr and Mr. Mueller, up to the Capitol and have them “sitting side-by-side” to talk about how they reached their conclusions.
Mr. Rosenstein has gone from Democratic darling to Democratic whipping boy, but analysts say documents from the Mueller investigation better reflect the complex role he played in the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Mr. Rosenstein signed off on some of the most controversial decisions involving the probe’s investigation of Mr. Trump, including the fourth search warrant authorizing the FBI to spy on former Trump campaign official Carter Page and the Rosenstein-authored memo that Mr. Trump used to justify firing then-FBI Director James B. Comey in 2017.
Little more than a week after that, Mr. Rosenstein created the special counsel’s investigation and tapped Mr. Mueller to lead it.
Now, Mr. Rosenstein has signed off on Mr. Mueller’s conclusions, as expressed by Mr. Barr’s summary.
Matthew Miller, who served as Justice Department spokesman for Obama-era Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., is among those who say Mr. Rosenstein’s legacy is tainted.
“I think his role in the Comey firing was inexcusable and part of the reason he appointed Mueller was to repair the damage that did to his reputation, ” Mr. Miller said. “That will always be a black mark on his record. He did the best he could to remove that black mark, but it doesn’t fully expunge the record.”
More broadly, Mr. Miller said, Mr. Rosenstein managed to protect the Mueller probe itself — despite fears to the contrary, Mr. Trump never fired either Mr. Mueller or Mr. Rosenstein. Yet Mr. Miller said protecting the probe “meant giving in to the president on things he shouldn’t have.”
Among those was caving to Mr. Trump’s demand for an inspector general’s probe of whether the FBI inserted a spy into his campaign.
“That was such a dangerous precedent to set, giving the president that investigation because he asked for it,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Trump, for his part, appeared on the verge of firing Mr. Rosenstein last year, after a raid on the office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
The Cohen case was based in part of a referral from the special counsel and Mr. Rosenstein personally approved the search.
At the time, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, warned Mr. Trump not to go down that path.
“Any attempt to remove Rod Rosenstein will create the exact same constitutional crisis as if you fired special counsel Mueller,” Mr. Schumer said. “Don’t do it, do not go down this path. For the sake of our country, we plead with you. Don’t put this country through a constitutional crisis.”
From the right, meanwhile, staunch Trump ally Rep. Jim Jordan threatened to impeach Mr. Rosenstein if he did not hand over documents related to the Justice Department’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of an email server.
The impeachment articles also accused Mr. Rosenstein of failing to appoint a second special counsel to review the FBI’s actions in the Russia probe, and the proposed impeachment demanded Mr. Rosenstein recuse himself from the Russia probe.
Tensions boiled over in a hearing last year. After a stern line of questioning, Mr. Jordan told Mr. Rosenstein it wasn’t personal.
“Sometimes, it feels that way,” the deputy attorney general replied.
“You saw when Jordan went after him in the hearing, you saw him say, ‘I take a lot, but don’t tell me that I’m dishonorable,’ ” said Jim Trusty, a former Justice Department official who has known Mr. Rosenstein for 20 years. “When you get to the core of suggesting he’s corrupt, he’ll fight back.”
A spokesperson for Mr. Jordan did not return multiple calls and emails requesting comment.
Mr. Rosenstein survived another rough patch after it was revealed he’d suggested wiretapping the president and, according to The New York Times, discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office.
Mr. Rosenstein called the claims “factually inaccurate.”
He and Mr. Trump would later clear the air in an Air Force One meeting, and the president’s public criticism of the man he appointed to the No. 2 post at the Justice Department diminished.
“This isn’t inside knowledge, but I think the president recognized that Rod is truly an honorable guy and not a contestant on ‘The Apprentice’ [that] the president could shake up with threats,” Mr. Trusty said. “It is the classic schoolyard situation where Trump realized this guy is not rattled by his stuff and there is begrudging respect for that.”
Mr. Rosenstein is set to exit the Justice Department shortly, a move announced just after Mr. Barr was confirmed to helm the department.
Both Mr. Prior and Mr. Trusty say Mr. Rosenstein’s stewardship of the Mueller probe will be well-remembered by history.
“It’s going to be interesting to see whether people who were drawing red lines to protect Rod will suddenly ‘remember’ he is a conservative hack just out to protect his friend, the president, and, on the other side, if you have Freedom Caucus people say, ‘I threatened to lock him up, but he’s not that bad,’ ” Mr. Trusty said.