ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to talk now about one name that has been in focus in this controversy over that memo. It's the second in command at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein. And to talk more about him, NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us now. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So Rod Rosenstein is the deputy attorney general, but he oversees Mueller, the special counsel. He's the acting attorney general in that respect. You've covered him for a very long time. What can you tell us about him?
JOHNSON: Sure. Rod Rosenstein runs the Justice Department day to day. A lot stops on his desk. And he's a Justice Department lifer. He joined the Justice Department more than 27 years ago as a young person through the honors program. He worked in the tax unit. He worked on detail for independent counsel Ken Starr in the Whitewater investigation.
Then, Ari, he became U.S. attorney in Baltimore for 11 years through most of the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And that's remarkable for a Republican to hold a plum job like that in a Democratic administration. But friends say it's a sign of how he conducted himself - down the middle. And today, Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, says that Rod Rosenstein retains his support to this day. He stands by Rosenstein.
SHAPIRO: Rosenstein has been criticized by Democrats in the past when he was involved in the Comey firing. There are new reports this week that President Trump is now not a fan of Rosenstein. What's the latest there?
JOHNSON: Yeah. There's a report by CNN this week that President Trump asked Rosenstein whose team he was on in December, reminiscent of the kind of loyalty oath other top law enforcement folks have been talking about. They've been asked by the president. I'm told that Rosenstein deflected the question when Trump asked it and said that as president, he deserved everyone's loyalty.
But Trump still doesn't seem happy. He's been talking with people about wanting to get rid of Rod Rosenstein, and that bothers people who work at the Justice Department because it violates some traditions of independence in law enforcement that cropped up after Watergate. President Trump seems to be running roughshod over those lines. And there may be some hint that Rosenstein may be targeted in this memo about to be released.
SHAPIRO: And this is key because as we mentioned, Rosenstein oversees the special counsel, Robert Mueller. So how is his fate key to that investigation?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Remember; Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe. So Rod Rosenstein is the man to see. He's the man who approves every major decision that Robert Mueller wants to take, like plea deals and charges. And he signs off on Mueller's budget. Rosenstein has defended Mueller in the wake of all this Republican criticism from the White House and Capitol Hill.
And getting rid of Rod Rosenstein is one way for this White House to disrupt the Mueller investigation. The idea is, you put somebody else in place who's either going to fire Robert Mueller or restrain him and restrain the scope of this investigation. But a former DOJ official said to me today, you're relegating yourself to the history books in the most negative way possible if you decide to fire Bob Mueller. Who wants to be remembered for that?
SHAPIRO: Rod Rosenstein has been involved in a lot of key events like firing the former FBI Director James Comey. Given that, how is he still in charge of the Russia probe? Why hasn't he been recused as well?
JOHNSON: I've been puzzling over that for months. I consulted again this morning the Justice Department. They say that everything remains as it is, that Rosenstein remains in charge of this investigation. If he sees something, if the ethics lawyers at the Justice Department see something that causes them to think that Rosenstein needs to recuse, step aside, he will.
I talked with Stephen Gillers, an ethics expert at New York University. And he says that Rosenstein, in his view, can continue to supervise Mueller so long as Rosenstein is not under personal legal risk. As long as he didn't do anything wrong and is not a subject or a target of this investigation, he might be able to keep monitoring the work of Bob Mueller.
SHAPIRO: There has been a lot of Democratic handwringing that this Nunes memo is laying the groundwork to getting rid of Rosenstein, to get rid of Mueller. But that still leaves the question, who would do the ultimate deed? If Sessions is recused, if - even if Trump gets rid of Rosenstein in one way or another, who wants to be the person who fires Robert Mueller?
JOHNSON: Exactly. And there is a chain of command at the Justice Department for decisions like this. So if for one reason or another Rod Rosenstein leaves DOJ either willingly or not, the decision then would go to the associate attorney general, the third in command, Rachel Brand, then onto the solicitor general, Noel Francisco. You'd have to get pretty far down the list. And in fact, there's precedent for this in Watergate in 1973...
JOHNSON: ...That President Nixon had to get pretty far down the list until he found...
SHAPIRO: A lot of people resigning all at once.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.