As Rod Rosenstein Battles to Protect Mueller, His Tactics Could Cost the Justice Dept.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has proved adept at political gamesmanship, but his maneuvers could expose the Justice Department to more politically motivated attacks.

WASHINGTON — He has a reputation as a principled lawyer. He has worked for both Republican and Democratic attorneys general. He has a jugular instinct in courtroom battles but a distaste for political ones.

Now Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, is confronting the political fight of his career. Amid sustained criticism by President Trump and rumors that he will be fired, Mr. Rosenstein is also maneuvering to defuse demands by Republicans in Congress that Democrats say are aimed at ousting him from his job — and from his role as protector of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

So far, he appears to be succeeding. But in trying to deflect those attacks, some say, Mr. Rosenstein has risked eroding the Justice Department’s historic independence from political meddling. The consequences could persist long after he and the rest of the Trump administration are out of power.

A small but influential group of House Republicans has demanded greater access to sensitive documents related to some of the F.B.I.’s most politically charged investigations into the Trump campaign and Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails. Should Mr. Rosenstein fail to comply, they have threatened to subpoena him, hold him in contempt of Congress or even impeach him.

The Republicans complain that Mr. Rosenstein and other Justice Department officials have slow-walked or outright stonewalled their requests for reams of documents and other information they need to conduct oversight. When they do receive documents, they say, too many are showing up with critical content blacked out.

“This is serious stuff,” said Representative Jim Jordan, a conservative Ohio Republican allied with Mr. Trump who voiced his complaints in a recent meeting with Mr. Rosenstein. “We as a separate and equal branch of government are entitled to get the information.”

Mr. Rosenstein, 53, has staved off his attackers on Capitol Hill largely by appeasing them. Two weeks ago, he allowed key Republican legislators to review an almost completely unredacted F.B.I. memo on the opening of a still active investigation of the Trump campaign, a rare step. He later summoned two other Republicans, Mr. Jordan and Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, to his office to pledge that the Justice Department would be more responsive to their requests.

And on Thursday, threatened with a subpoena, he gave a relatively large group of lawmakers access to memos written by the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey about his interactions with Mr. Trump. The documents are considered to be important evidence in a potential obstruction of justice case against the president being weighed by Mr. Mueller.

But still other Republican demands remain unmet, and Democrats have warned that Mr. Rosenstein is being boxed into a corner where he has to choose between saving his job and setting disturbing precedents that chip away at the independence that the Justice Department has maintained since President Richard M. Nixon tried to thwart the Watergate investigation. “That independence keeps the country from sliding into a banana republic,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Stephen E. Boyd, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, said, “The department is responding to what it believes to be good faith requests for information pursuant to Congress’s appropriate oversight function, and the department is doing so in a way that will not have any adverse impact on ongoing investigations.”

Others said they worried that in solving his short-term political problems, Mr. Rosenstein could expose the department to increasingly onerous congressional demands into continuing investigations — an area that has traditionally been off limits.

“It could become an exception that swallows the rule,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a former federal prosecutor. “Every request by Congress can be made to seem exceptional.”

Resolving such dilemmas is but one of the challenges Mr. Rosenstein faces. Mr. Trump claimed this month, without offering evidence, that he suffers from conflicts of interest and has criticized him for signing a warrant application to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide. Every week seems to bring a new rumor that Mr. Trump plans to fire Mr. Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Mr. Mueller or all three.

In one of Washington’s odder embraces, their strongest defenders are congressional Democrats who abhor the Justice Department’s policies under the Trump administration but see Mr. Rosenstein as a firewall between the president and the special counsel.

Mr. Rosenstein declined requests for an interview, but supporters say he is well positioned to defend himself. A careful and conservative lawyer, he is unlikely to make missteps or overstep boundaries, they say. A high-ranking former Justice Department official described him as “the ultimate survivor.”

Early in his tenure, he stumbled when he wrote a memo to Mr. Sessions castigating Mr. Comey for speaking publicly about the F.B.I. investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified information while secretary of state. Although Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited it as justification for firing Mr. Comey, Mr. Rosenstein told Congress that the memo was not meant to “justify a for-cause termination.” Even so, he acknowledged that he knew Mr. Comey’s job was in danger when he wrote it.

“Rod got suckered by the president in writing the memo,” said Philip B. Heymann, a former Justice Department official and one of Mr. Rosenstein’s mentors. “Trump marched his deputy attorney general way out on a limb and then left him there.”

He and others suggest that Mr. Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller as special counsel partly to redeem himself. That was “the only way Rod could show he was not a lackey, that he was neutral,” Mr. Heymann said.

Mr. Sessions has scant ability to provide his deputy cover. If the president is mulling Mr. Rosenstein’s fate, he holds a deeper animus toward Mr. Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

Mr. Rosenstein addresses his own jeopardy with a blend of stoicism and black humor, according to friends. “I may need to talk to you about a job,” he jested to one Washington-area lawyer.

He is not, however, trying to whip up political support for himself. He “doesn’t do the self-preservation game,” said James M. Trusty, a friend who worked with him in Maryland. “He’s very grounded and fatalistic. He plays it by the book.”

Mr. Rosenstein is proceeding as though he will not be fired. On Monday, he is arguing a sentencing guidelines case on behalf of the federal government before the Supreme Court.

Mr. Rosenstein grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1989. He became a trial lawyer in the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington and eventually worked with Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton’s business dealings. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed him the United States attorney for Maryland. President Barack Obama kept him on.

The office he ran had been torn apart by political infighting and had a weak relationship with local law enforcement. In his first few months, Mr. Rosenstein gathered information from employees about what had gone wrong, then restructured the office. He reached out to state prosecutors and encouraged his staff members to work with them to fight violent crime. His ability to transcend politics gave him credibility, according to many who worked with him.

“I never heard a political word escape from his lips,” said Brian E. Frosh, the Democratic Maryland attorney general. “He was smart, honest, fair, tough — everything you want in a prosecutor.”

Mr. Sessions barely knew Mr. Rosenstein when he became his deputy, and Mr. Rosenstein had no obvious political patron. He was not expecting to become a household name: When his daughter asked whether his new job meant that he was now famous, he told her that few people know or care who served as deputy attorney general.

He and Mr. Sessions had little in common beyond their lengthy tenures as federal prosecutors and shared views on gangs, drugs and violent crime. And the tensions that almost always exist between attorneys general and their deputies have been exacerbated by the special counsel investigation and the resulting political pressures.

But associates say the men have bonded in the face of attacks from the White House.

After Mr. Trump publicly exploded against Mr. Rosenstein this month, Mr. Sessions called Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, to warn that firing the deputy attorney general would have damaging consequences, including the possible resignation of Mr. Sessions himself, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

Mr. Sessions told Mr. McGahn that the president needed to know that he believed that firing Mr. Rosenstein would be a misstep and that he had done nothing to justify such an ouster.

Mr. Rosenstein’s oversight of the special counsel’s office gives him broad powers to approve or veto Mr. Mueller’s investigative requests. Democrats and some Republicans worry that the president could fire Mr. Rosenstein and install a replacement who would use that power to narrow the scope of the special counsel’s inquiry.

Democratic senators have circulated a document arguing that a new deputy attorney general could deny Mr. Mueller the power to take investigative steps and decline to sign off on staff or resources, essentially undermining the investigation without officially ending it or prompting the kind of Republican backlash on Capitol Hill that firing Mr. Mueller almost certainly would. A new appointee could also refuse to publicly release a report when Mr. Mueller’s investigation concludes.

Mr. Rosenstein has made efforts to head off conflicts with the White House. Soon after the F.B.I. raided the office, home and hotel room of the president’s lawyer Michael D. Cohen this month, infuriating the president, Mr. Rosenstein and Mr. Trump met. Mr. Trump emerged telling people that Mr. Rosenstein had said he was not a target of the investigation into Mr. Cohen’s activities, according to two people with knowledge of the president’s account. Justice Department officials declined to comment on the meeting.

At the same time, the president’s staunchest supporters on Capitol Hill have put themselves in one standoff after another with Mr. Rosenstein. Among others, he has faced escalating demands and complaints from three committee chairmen: Representatives Robert W. Goodlatte of the Judiciary Committee, Devin Nunes of the Intelligence Committee and Trey Gowdy of the Oversight Committee.

In an interview this month on Fox News, Mr. Nunes threatened to hold Mr. Rosenstein in contempt or even impeach him if he failed to turn over the complete copy of the F.B.I. memo justifying the initiation of the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign. Mr. Rosenstein called him to the Justice Department and gave him and other Intelligence Committee members access the next day to a version of the memo that satisfied their concerns.

In a separate request, Mr. Goodlatte and others have issued a subpoena for hundreds of thousands of documents — an extraordinary number even for Congress — related to the Clinton inquiry, the firing of the F.B.I.’s former deputy director and other matters. When the lawmakers began complaining that the documents were coming slowly and with too much content blacked out, the Justice Department appointed a United States attorney in Illinois to oversee document review and production. The F.B.I. doubled the number of employees working on responses to a request for materials the Justice Department’s inspector general was using to 54 people working two shifts a day, from 8 a.m. to midnight.

But some Republicans are still unsatisfied and have said a contempt citation or even impeachment — exceedingly rare steps that would require votes in the House — are still possibilities. Democrats fear that, taken together, the Republican requests are meant to offer Mr. Trump cover or even cause to fire Mr. Rosenstein.

In a meeting with Mr. Rosenstein in recent days, Mr. Jordan and Mr. Meadows tried to impress upon him that they needed the documents they sought. Otherwise, Mr. Meadows said later, lawmakers would be left with no choice but to begin building a case to hold Mr. Rosenstein in contempt of Congress or to try to impeach him.

“Contempt is obviously still on the horizon,” Mr. Meadows said, “if there is not a substantial change.”

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