WASHINGTON — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Monday appeared to be trying to dampen expectations about what the public might see of special counsel Robert Mueller's widely-expected report, noting that federal prosecutors typically don't describe conduct that falls outside the scope of criminal charges.
"The guidance I always gave my prosecutors and the agents that I worked with during my tenure on the front lines of law enforcement was: If we aren't prepared to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt in court, then we have no business making allegations against American citizens," Rosenstein said during a question and answer session at a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rosenstein would not answer specific questions about the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. elections. But his comments came amid a growing expectation that Mueller will deliver a confidential report to the attorney general within the next few weeks — a report that may describe his decisions not to prosecute people he had been investigating.
The rules appear to give Mueller wide latitude to create a narrative explaining what he found about the many unexplained contacts between Trump associates and the Russians, regardless of whether he files criminal charges.
But on the question of whether that information will ever become public, Rosenstein seemed to be pouring cold water.
He criticized former FBI Director James Comey for publicly accusing then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her aides in July 2016 of being "extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information."
When it comes to law enforcement investigations, transparency is not always a good thing, Rosenstein said.
"Just because the government collects information, doesn't mean that information is accurate," he said. "It can be really misleading if you're overly transparent about information that the government collects. So, I think we do need to be really cautious about that."
In prepared remarks, Rosenstein also praised Attorney General William Barr as "yet another example of a superb appointment that President Trump has made which I believe does demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law."
That struck some observers as something Rosenstein, who has been briefed on every aspect of the Mueller investigation, would not have said were he expecting a report that accuses Trump of misconduct.
Congressional Democrats say they will subpoena the Mueller report, call the special counsel to testify, and do whatever is required so the public can learn exactly what he found.
"Although we recognize the policy of the Department (of Justice) to remain sensitive to the privacy and reputation interests of individuals who will not face criminal charges, we feel that it is necessary to address the particular danger of withholding evidence of misconduct by President Trump from the relevant committees," House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler said in a Feb. 22 letter to Barr.
"If the special counsel has reason to believe that the president has engaged in criminal or other serious misconduct, then the president must be subject to accountability either in a court or to the Congress. But because the department has taken the position that a sitting president is immune from indictment and prosecution, Congress could be the only institution currently situated to act on evidence of the president's misconduct," Nadler wrote.
"To maintain that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and then to withhold evidence of wrongdoing from Congress because the president will not be charged, is to convert department policy into the means for a cover-up. The president is not above the law."
Although the Mueller report may contain grand jury information that normally is not sent to Congress, there is precedent for an exception to the grand jury secrecy rules.
In 1974, Federal District Judge John J. Sirica ordered that a grand jury report and accompanying materials bearing on President Richard Nixon's conduct in the Watergate scandal be turned over to the House impeachment inquiry.
Sirica decided that lawmakers' need for the information outweighed the case for privacy and secrecy.