View from within Justice Department: ‘Justice must be based on truth’

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who hired and oversees special counsel Robert Mueller, has been tight-lipped about Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Forum Club of the Palm Beaches President Tony Pirozzi tried to get Rosenstein to break precedent Friday when Rosenstein appeared before 950 people at a lunch at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.

“In your testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee, you declined to discuss the specifics of the Mueller investigation,” Pirozzi said while prefacing a question.

Rosenstein cut him off.

“That’s because I was waiting for this opportunity,” Rosenstein said.

He was joking, and got a laugh from the audience.

While scrupulously avoiding the Mueller probe, Rosenstein did talk about the rule of law, the separation of powers and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new directive on enforcing marijuana laws.

Rosenstein began by noting he had attended a Thursday event in Miami that focused on human trafficking. The headline afterward, Rosenstein said, was “Rosenstein visits Miami … and does not talk about Russia.”

Then, he added: “They will be able to write the same headline today in Palm Beach.”

Some highlights of Rosenstein’s remarks:

  • “I have seen stories speculating that I may be sued, fired, or held in contempt — and that was just the last 24 hours.”
  • “Our Constitution establishes a government based on the principle that the law must be enforced fairly, and applied evenly to all persons.”
  • “When you follow the rule of law, it does not mean that you will always be happy about the outcome. To the contrary, you know for sure that you are following the rule of law when you are not always happy with the outcome.”
  • “At the Department of Justice, we must always pursue justice. And justice must be based on truth. Truth is about credible evidence, not strong opinions.”
  • “People who seek the truth must remain open to the possibility that it may not match their preconceptions. Fair-minded investigators must never reach a conclusion first and then ignore contradictory facts.”
  • “Lots of people are allowed to talk to reporters about federal investigations. Witnesses are allowed to talk to reporters. Suspects are allowed to talk to reporters. Private lawyers are allowed to talk to reporters. And all of those people have friends and relatives who are allowed to talk to reporters. One of the consequences is that the people who talk to reporters usually do not know all of the relevant facts, so the stories frequently are wrong in either stark or subtle ways.”
  • “A judge who dislikes the Trump administration’s policies about vetting foreign visitors or funding sanctuary cities … is still supposed to uphold the policy if it is legal, without expressing any opinion about whether or not the judge believes it is a good policy. That is challenging for some judges, because many people presume that the judge must agree with the substantive result, when in fact the judge generally is not supposed to focus on the outcome.”

During a question-and-answer session after his prepared remarks, Rosenstein said the Department of Justice has safeguards to make sure political bias doesn’t influence a decision to prosecute or not prosecute a case. He mentioned Mueller’s decision to remove an FBI agent from the investigation after it was revealed the agent had exchanged anti-Trump text messages with another FBI employee.

“We had some publicity recently about some agents who reportedly were making partisan comments while they were doing their work. And certainly things like that happen but the processes that we have in place are designed to ensure that that does not impact the substantive results,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein was part of Kenneth Starr’s investigation of former President Bill Clinton. Asked whether Clinton or Trump was better at “fighting back,” Rosenstein drew a distinction between Starr and Mueller.

Starr was appointed by a federal judge under an independent counsel law that expired in 1999, Rosenstein noted. Mueller is accountable to the Department of Justice and has the authority and responsibilities as a U.S. attorney, Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein also was asked about Sessions’ decision to reverse Obama administration directives that scaled back enforcement of marijuana laws in states that have legalized pot. Congress outlawed marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and therefore, Rosenstein said, the executive branch doesn’t have the authority to override the law.

“There’s a difference of opinion” about whether marijuana should be legal, Rosenstein said. “But the facts are that the United States Congress has decreed that marijuana is unlawful throughout these United States of America, every one of the 50 states. And no state or local government has the authority to overrule federal law.”

Prosecutors still have discretion on whether to pursue cases, Rosenstein said.

“The policy doesn’t dictate that our U.S. attorneys are going to go out and prosecute anyone for using marijuana,” he said. “In fact, there are almost no federal prosecutions for mere use or personal possession of marijuana.”

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