STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Events of the past few weeks can make Robert Mueller's investigation seem ancient. But it was only months ago that the special counsel presented findings on Russia's participation in the 2016 election. The special counsel was appointed in May of 2017, shortly after President Trump fired the FBI director who was investigating Russia, and a new book reconstructs the origins of that appointment.
Investigative reporter James B. Stewart is the author of "Deep State" and is on the line from New York. Welcome to the program.
JAMES B STEWART: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: I want to note that, among many other things, you focus on Rod Rosenstein, who we should recall was the deputy attorney general, the No. 2 in the Justice Department in May of 2017. What makes him such a vital character to you?
STEWART: Well, he's a pivotal character in the story and, really, even in the drama that extends to today because he was in charge of the Russia investigation. He was the one who appointed the special counsel. He came into his job in the Justice Department as a very highly regarded independent prosecutor. And over the course of time, he turned into - I don't want to overstate this, but something of a lackey for the president and for the new Attorney General William Barr.
He rushed to judgment. He was quick to exonerate Trump. He mischaracterized the findings of the Mueller report, and he quickly left.
INSKEEP: How would that happen? Because in the beginning, when Sessions, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who recused himself, Rosenstein was seen as the guy who was overseeing the Mueller investigation and the guy who was a firewall, who was protecting the Mueller investigation from repeated efforts by the president to interfere with it.
STEWART: Well, it's a fascinating study, both in the exercise of power from the White House and in an exercise of character and someone caught up in these tumultuous and, I have to say, highly dramatic events. He was barely in office when he was summoned to the White House and told to write a memo that would justify the firing of Jim Comey. Now, Jim Comey's someone he had brought to his U.S. attorney's office as a role model for his prosecutors. He now wrote a memo about Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation, which Trump seized upon and then tried to make Rosenstein the public instigator of the movement to fire Comey.
Now, I think Rosenstein was utterly stunned by this turn of events because that was not true. He knew it wasn't true. Sessions - wasn't true. Not only did Comey fire - I mean did Trump fire Comey, but he immediately started publicly lying about it, and it sent Rosenstein into a panic. I mean, those days after he was fired - I had multiple, multiple sources on this - was incredibly tumultuous inside the FBI, inside the Justice Department. Rosenstein was having some kind of a meltdown. He called for secretly wiring the president to collect evidence of obstruction. He thought about invoking the 25th Amendment.
When he finally calmed down, this all, of course, got back to Trump. Trump now had every reason to fire him if he wanted to. And yet on two different occasions, they had one-on-one meetings and, amazingly, Rosenstein comes out with his job intact. Now, Comey said - when someone asked him about it when Rosenstein was first appointed - he said of Rosenstein, he said, he is a survivor. The problem in this administration is you survive at what cost?
Now, defenders of Rosenstein told me that his sole goal was to keep Mueller from being fired and to help him finish his job. But did he really finish that job?
INSKEEP: I want to just...
STEWART: And who really won that victory?
STEWART: Trump claimed total victory.
INSKEEP: I just want to note for the record, Rosenstein, along the way, denied some of the things you report. For example, the consideration of the 25th Amendment. But you also report something, a very small thing, that seems quite revealing. After Rosenstein wrote this memo, helped to get Jim Comey fired, you report that he was asking if he could get the advice of James Comey about what to do next.
STEWART: I know. It's an extraordinary scene where he's sitting there. He says, there's no one at the Justice Department I can trust, there's no one here I can talk to. He was extremely isolated. He couldn't talk to the White House, obviously. Sessions was of no help. And he says, I want to talk to Jim Comey. I mean, suddenly, he's back to the - this was the Jim Comey you wanted to come talk to, as prosecutors, as a role model. But he had just basically fired the guy, or contributed to his firing.
I mean, everybody at the FBI was astonished by this. And they thought about reaching out to Comey to see if he would talk to Rosenstein. But then in the end, they didn't do it because he was no longer the head of the FBI. He no longer had a government job, and they didn't think it was appropriate.
INSKEEP: So let me ask about the present day here because you have - you say that Rosenstein, despite all of this, was turned into what you called a lackey. We can talk about people who are alleged to be enablers around the president. And we now have this story involving Ukraine, where the president was campaigning to have a political rival investigated. And numerous state department diplomats, who had their own misgivings in some cases, went along with this. Other people went along with this. The president's personal lawyer deeply and publicly involved himself in this.
What do you think about that story, having learned what you learned about the recent past?
STEWART: Well, it's fascinating because as you see in the deep state story, there were people around Trump who saved him from his worst impulses. Bannon, McGahn, even Sessions. I mean, there were people, you can criticize them for one thing or another, but they knew the line between legal and illegal. All of those people are gone. He now has the people he wants in place, the ones who will not stop him from doing what he wants. The other thing that's so astonishing to me is that he appears to have learned nothing from the Russia investigation except that he prevailed and he won, which only emboldened him to do something even more brazen and then again to engage in a cover-up to hide it.
INSKEEP: Is his interest in Ukraine somehow connected to that 2016 election, the Russian involvement in the previous investigations...
STEWART: Absolutely. The lines come right out of the deep state story. He's blaming the deep state now for it all. It all goes back to the origins of the Russia investigation, how that came about, how information reached the FBI. All of that story is completely told in my book. It is not a sinister conspiracy that was meant to undermine him. It was all done perfectly appropriately with some of the United States' closest allies. The only reason Trump was made a target was because he fired Comey and then lied about it.
INSKEEP: Mr. Stewart, thanks very much.
STEWART: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: The latest book from James B. Stewart is "Deep State: Trump, The FBI, And The Rule Of Law," and it is out tomorrow.
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