Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein beat back questions about threats to the rule of law and defended the Justice Department's independence in a wide-ranging question and answer session Tuesday in Washington.
The sit-down at the Newseum -- where Rosenstein also gave revealing responses to questions lobbed by the media and the public about his detractors on Capitol Hill, the investigation into President Donald Trump's election campaign, and the press -- was a moment of unusual candor for the man charged with overseeing the special counsel probe.
"I don't think there's any threat to rule of law in America today," Rosenstein said, citing the country's culture and constitutional rights, when quizzed by the event's moderator, law professor Ronald Collins.
Asked by Collins how he manages conflicts between the rule of law and a President who has mused about meddling with his own Justice Department, Rosenstein pushed back.
"There are no such conflicts," Rosenstein said. "The Justice Department is independent of inappropriate political considerations. I think it's important to recognize it's not independent of the executive branch -- the department has a responsibility to be in accord with the priorities of the administration, and that's what elections are for."
Despite his typically administrative and low-profile position, Rosenstein, a Republican, has found himself the target of ire from the President and conservative groups.
Following the FBI raid last month on Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen, multiple sources told CNN the President was considering firing Rosenstein. On Monday, The Washington Post reported that a group of House Republicans had drafted articles of impeachment for the deputy attorney general, a "last resort" document, one of its authors said, that could imperil special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
Tuesday, Rosenstein saved his harshest fire for his critics in Congress, portraying the Republicans who leaked the draft document to the Post as cowards.
"I just don't have anything to say about documents like that that nobody has the courage to put their name on and that they leak in that way," Rosenstein said.
"I can tell you that there have been people who have been making threats privately and publicly against me for quite some time, and I think they should understand by now the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted," he said.
Soon afterward, the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, called Rosenstein's comment "a lot of rhetoric with little facts."
"If he believes being asked to do his job is 'extortion,' then Rod Rosenstein should step aside and allow us to find a new Deputy Attorney General—preferably one who is interested in transparency," Meadows said in a statement.
The day after The New York Times reported on a list of questions the special counsel team wants to ask Trump, Rosenstein declined to discuss the investigation but did weigh in on a central question that has lingered as it unfolds: whether a sitting president can be indicted.
"I'm not going to answer this in the context of any current matters so you shouldn't draw any inference about it, but the Department of Justice has in the past, when the issue arose, has opined that a sitting President cannot be indicted," Rosenstein said.
He also engaged in a bit of media criticism at the event, which was put on by a First Amendment-booster group to mark Law Day, a holiday that celebrates the role of law in American society.
He called the headline of a BuzzFeed report that said he'd ordered a revision of a Justice Department manual that included eliminating sections on press freedoms a "very cute talking point" but "completely misleading."
On news stories about him that he says are false, he said, "I don't think most reporters are trying to mislead people, I think the problem is that they are hostage to their sources and who's leaking. I'm not leaking."
Still, he appeared to maintain good spirits through the nearly hourlong grilling.
Asked by a former lawyer in the audience why the 2016 election couldn't be "rescinded" if the Mueller probe found any illegal action by the Trump campaign, Rosenstein plucked a sticky-noted copy of the Constitution from his breast pocket.
"'Cause of this," he said, grinning.
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