The US attorney’s office in Maryland — the office that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ran for 12 years — has been fertile ground for senior Justice Department hires in the Trump administration.
Now, one of the lawyers formerly under Rosenstein’s command has joined the special counsel team that is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and, reportedly, whether Trump attempted to interfere with that probe.
Aaron Zelinsky, who has spent the past three years working for Rosenstein in Maryland as an assistant US attorney, was detailed to special counsel Robert Mueller III’s team in mid-June, a spokesperson for the special counsel’s office confirmed to BuzzFeed News. Zelinsky brings experience as a line prosecutor — he won an award last year for his work in Maryland on organized crime — and on civil procedure, which he’s taught at a law school.
Asked if Rosenstein had recommended Zelinsky to Mueller or played any role in his assignment, a Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment and referred questions about the special counsel team to that office. A spokesperson for the special counsel team also declined to comment. The New Haven Independent first reported Zelinsky’s new position.
Former State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh, for whom Zelinsky previously worked, said in an email to BuzzFeed News that Rosenstein had “sung his praises.”
“Aaron is an outstanding and fair-minded young prosecutor who will follow the facts and law where they lead. You can count on him to conduct any investigation based on law, not politics,” Koh said.
Zelinsky, who did not immediately return a request for comment, won’t be working for Rosenstein — at least not directly. Rosenstein has oversight authority of the special counsel team — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from investigations related to the 2016 campaign — but by regulation he is not supposed to be involved in its day-to-day operations.
Zelinsky spent about a year working in the Obama administration, serving as a special assistant to Koh at the State Department. He clerked for Judge Thomas Griffith of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and has taught at Peking University School of Transnational Law and at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, according to his LinkedIn profile. From 2013 to 2014, Zelinsky clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Anthony Kennedy. He joined the US attorney’s office in Maryland in 2014.
Mueller’s critics have accused him of staffing the special counsel’s office with left-leaning lawyers, noting that several employees contributed to Democratic candidates. Zelinsky worked in the Obama administration, but according to the Federal Election Commission he hasn’t contributed to any candidates of either party within the past ten years. His clerkships spanned the ideological spectrum.
The Maryland connection
Rosenstein served as the US attorney for Maryland from 2005 until he was confirmed as deputy attorney general in April. He didn’t have to travel far for his new job at the Justice Department — the Maryland US attorney’s office is headquartered just an hour north of DC, in Baltimore — and he’s brought in several familiar faces. At least five other lawyers who previously worked for Rosenstein in Maryland have taken positions in the deputy attorney general's office since January.
“Rod spent a long time at the US attorney’s office, so he’s very comfortable working with a number of the individuals that he brought over,” said Kwame Manley, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Rosenstein in Maryland and is now in private practice. “I think it’s quite common when individuals go to Main Justice that they bring over people with whom they have a good relationship, people they know and trust.”
The Justice Department announced last week that Robert Hur, who worked in the Maryland US attorney’s office from 2007 to 2014, would be serving as the principal associate deputy attorney general. James Crowell IV, who led the criminal section in Maryland under Rosenstein, joined the deputy attorney general’s office in January, and is Rosenstein’s chief of staff.
Other hires from the Maryland US attorney’s office in recent months include Sujit Raman, who managed the appellate practice in Maryland and is serving as an associate deputy attorney general; Leah Bressack, a former assistant US attorney now serving as counsel to the deputy attorney general, and Marcia Murphy, who was the public affairs officer in Maryland and is now Rosenstein’s confidential assistant.
A Justice Department spokesperson said in an email that Rosenstein was following in the footsteps of his predecessors, including Obama-era deputy attorneys general Sally Yates and James Cole, in hiring “career Department of Justice employees to provide their guidance, experience and leadership during a new administration.”
“These career prosecutors come to Washington from Maryland, Oklahoma, California, Virginia, and Florida. They make up part of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's key career staff and provide continuity and expertise to their political appointee colleagues as they collectively work to carry out the President's law enforcement priorities,” DOJ spokesperson Ian Prior said.