A former federal official spoke about the Trump administration and the Special Counsel investigation into 2016 election interference with members of the Brandeis community at the Heller School on Wednesday.
Chuck Rosenberg, who resigned from his role as the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) after criticizing President Donald Trump in September 2017, previously served as counsel to FBI Director Robert Mueller from 2002 to 2003 and as chief of staff and senior counselor to FBI Director James Comey from 2013 to 2015.
He spoke on the Brandeis campus as the Special Counsel investigation led by Mueller examines whether individuals on the Trump campaign aided or had advanced knowledge of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump has sought to obstruct the investigation.
“It seems to me that every time Mueller drops something into the public domain, we are surprised,” Rosenberg said. “We think we know about it because we read about it or we talk about it, but we don’t.”
His statement comes amid a constant flow of media reports and speculation since Trump took office about the Special Counsel investigation and its implications for the presidency. Comparing the public’s knowledge of the investigation to the tip of an iceberg, Rosenberg said he expects the public knows about one tenth of the information which Mueller knows.
“We think we know a lot about the obstruction piece because of things the President has said and done—whether its asking Director Comey to go easy on Mike Flynn or tweeting that certain people under investigation should stay strong, meaning shouldn’t testify, or hinting at the plenary pardon powers that he has or firing Director Comey—they all seem obstructive to us, but obstruction of justice actually requires more than that,” Rosenberg said. “It requires intent.”
Rosenberg explained that intent has a particular legal definition and is complicated by untested questions of presidential power.
There is a “serious argument that the President, any president, has a plenary Article 2 powers to fire members of the executive branch,” according to Rosenberg, who said he does not subscribe to that particular argument.
In May of 2017, Trump fired FBI Director Comey, a move which fueled speculation that the president was attempting to impede the investigation into Russian election hacking and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
“Can a president fire the director of the FBI? Absolutely, there’s no question about it,” Rosenberg said. “Can he do it for corrupt purposes? That is where the debate begins.”
Rosenberg noted additional questions that remain unanswered. “We don’t know whether a president can be charged [with a crime] while in office, we don’t know if a president can pardon himself,” he said, noting that “a lot of this stuff has not been litigated, has not been adjudicated.”
Even when Mueller concludes his investigation, according to Rosenberg, it remains to be seen how much of that report—if any—is made available to the public.
When finished, the Mueller report, according to Rosenberg, will go to the Attorney General who will decide what parts of the report to make public. Rosenberg described Bill Barr, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, as a “man of integrity” who is “well regarded in the Justice Department as an institutionalist.”
“I am going to make as much information available as I can, consistent with the rules and regulations,” Barr said before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month according to CBS.
On the question of whether congress would be able to view the report if it were not to be made public, Rosenberg said, “I think it’ll be a heck of a fight.”
“I can imagine a scenario under which we don’t see it,” Rosenberg said.
Noting the complexities of the Mueller investigation and the many witness, documents and institutions being examined, Rosenberg described the Mueller investigation as “moving at the speed of light.”
“Having worked for Mueller, I can tell you unreservedly that I have never seen a human being work harder than Mueller,” he said.
Rosenberg also spoke on his decision to resign as head of the DEA after he criticized the President for a speech in which Rosenberg says Trump condoned police violence.
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said in the speech to law enforcement agents in New York which led Rosenberg to resign, according to NBC News. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head, I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
According to Rosenberg, after Trump’s speech he wrote an email to his entire workforce condemning the President’s words. Rosenberg said he explained in the email, “We’re better than this, we do not behave this way, we are tethered to a set of rules and a set of values and to a constitution which requires us to treat those in our custody with great care.”
“The notion that a president, any president, would condone police violence, I thought was dangerous in a whole bunch of ways,” Rosenberg said, “One is it sends the absolute wrong signal to our communities, two it sends the absolute wrong signal to our cops and three it make their jobs more difficult and more dangerous.”
Rosenberg’s comments came as part of the Heller School’s “Conversations with the Dean.” A full video of the discussion can be found on the Heller School’s Facebook page.