STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of a man at the center of the storm at the Justice Department. Running that department presents a challenge any time but especially now. Justice leaders are under heavy pressure on everything from the travel ban to the Russia investigation, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is bearing the weight. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Here's something you need to know about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He's worked at the Justice Department his entire career - 27 years. Last year, Rosenstein told me the advice he gives younger lawyers.
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ROD ROSENSTEIN: That the most important part of their job is to protect the brand, that is that, you know, it's important to win cases. It's important to solve crimes, but it's more important that we maintain public confidence in the Department of Justice.
JOHNSON: Protecting the brand has gotten a lot more difficult. The Trump administration has shaken the foundations of federal law enforcement. First, the attorney general recused himself from the investigation into Russian influence in last year's elections. Then the president fired the FBI director, and Rosenstein appointed a special counsel to take over the Russia probe.
The president has floated the idea of firing that special counsel, Robert Mueller. But to do that, he'd have to go through Rod Rosenstein. Maine Senator Susan Collins asked him about that recently.
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SUSAN COLLINS: If President Trump ordered you to fire the special counsel, what would you do?
ROSENSTEIN: Well, Senator, I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders.
JOHNSON: That's Rosenstein's buttoned-up version of saying no way. But even his job seemed to be on the line after the president tweeted his frustration about the course of the special counsel investigation. That investigation may widen to include possible obstruction of justice by Trump for firing the FBI director.
SOL WISENBERG: I think Rod is trying to protect the integrity in the investigation. He's obviously in a difficult situation. You have a president who doesn't understand any of the norms in this kind of a situation, what's appropriate and what's not appropriate.
JOHNSON: That's Sol Wisenberg, a former prosecutor who worked closely with Rosenstein. They met during the investigation of the Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater when Bill Clinton was president. Back then, Wisenberg says Rosenstein was a straight arrow, a Jimmy Stewart type.
WISENBERG: Actually, Rod was generally the voice of reason. Rod was generally a person who counseled caution.
JOHNSON: That sounds familiar to prosecutor Bonnie Greenberg. She worked for Rosenstein in Maryland.
BONNIE GREENBERG: He follows the rules so much that when I went with him and his kids to the aquarium shortly after he started as U.S. attorney and the kids were like, oh, can I get some water? I bought them some water while he was off doing something else, and he insisted on paying me back.
JOHNSON: Greenberg's not just any employee who might be out a few bucks for some water. She first met Rosenstein in the late 1980s, when he would come to her office to visit with a paralegal named Lisa, the woman who later became his wife.
When he's not interviewing U.S. attorney candidates or testifying before Congress, friends say Rosenstein is usually chauffeuring his teenage daughters to soccer games. This week, he named a top deputy and a chief of staff. Both men are Justice Department veterans. His friend Rory Little, a law professor in California, says he visited with Rosenstein a week ago.
RORY LITTLE: I've seen some comments on the Internet like, how can he have any integrity? He should have resigned at this point or that point already. You know, you don't just walk away from a job because it's hard. You don't walk away from a job because it's not necessarily going the way you thought.
JOHNSON: Little says people urging the deputy attorney general to quit need to take the long view.
LITTLE: He's doing important work. And if he walks away from that job, there's no telling who would be put into that job.
JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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