WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump fired the acting attorney general last year for refusing to defend his controversial travel ban, Dana Boente stepped into the job.
When Trump abruptly ousted dozens of Obama-era federal prosecutors, Boente was tasked with letting them know.
And when Republicans released a politically explosive memo last week on the monitoring of a Trump campaign adviser, Boente was revealed as one of the officials who signed off on the surveillance.
The unassuming career federal prosecutor keeps finding himself in the middle of Trump’s political storms. But while some relatively obscure Justice Department veterans have sparked Republican rage for their roles in high-profile investigations, Boente has thus far emerged largely unscathed.
In fact, his profile continues to rise. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently chose him as general counsel, plunging him into the bureau’s inner machinations during an especially tumultuous time.
It is the latest role for the Obama administration holdover once described by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch as the “consummate utility player.” His willingness to pinch hit for the Trump administration has briefly landed him in some of the most influential posts in U.S. government, including acting attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s national security division.
Boente was serving as deputy attorney general before Rod Rosenstein’s confirmation in April, when he approved an application to extend a surveillance warrant allowing officials to monitor the communications of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. That detail was revealed last week in the hotly disputed GOP memo on the Russia investigation, the latest of a growing list of Republican grievances against the FBI and Justice Department.
The memo prompted conservative groups to call for the resignation of Rosenstein, whom Trump also had denounced in tweets. Republican rancor has intensified over months and some Justice Department officials have been fired, reassigned or otherwise departed amid the uproar. Among those under fire: Boente’s predecessor as general counsel, James Baker, who was the subject of an angry Trump tweet after he was moved out of the position, which doesn’t usually garner much public attention.
Boente hasn’t escaped criticism completely. He was among officials slammed by Fox News host Sean Hannity for his role in the Page warrant, and a conservative website has suggested he might have to resign. And liberals have said his reputation is marred by his willingness to enforce Trump policies, including the ban on visitors from Muslim-majority countries.
Still, he largely has managed to avoid the spotlight even while on center stage.
“During every major crisis in the last couple of years, Dana has been there,” said Gene Rossi, an attorney who worked alongside Boente for 21 years, first in the Justice Department’s tax division and then in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Rossi called him the “Zelig of the United States Department of Justice,” referring to the 1983 Woody Allen film about a man who morphs to take on the characteristics of anyone he meets. “Dana is the classic calm inside a very turbulent storm.”
Boente, who declined through an FBI spokeswoman to be interviewed, was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2015 to lead Virginia’s Eastern District. Home to the Pentagon and the CIA, the district often prosecutes terrorism, espionage and national security cases.
Boente oversaw several high-profile corruption cases, including the prosecution of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose conviction on corruption charges was later thrown out by the Supreme Court.
Eastern District prosecutors also were involved in the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, which ended without charges, a lingering source of outrage for Republicans.
Those close to Boente say he keeps his views to himself and takes pride in his reputation as a nonpartisan career official. He signed off on Trump’s travel ban, they said, not because of his own ideology but because he thought he could defend it. Lower courts have repeatedly struck it down, and the latest version awaits Supreme Court review.
“Dana has always seemed apolitical to me and focused on the work of the U.S. attorney’s office and the Justice Department rather than politics,” said Geremy Kamens, who heads the federal public defender’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Lynch, speaking at Boente’s swearing-in ceremony in 2016, said he reminded her of the “reliable middle child” she could always count on.
Trump, at least initially, saw him similarly, thanking him at a White House roundtable in February 2017.
“Amazing the way you just stepped into the breach and have done such a good job,” Trump said.
Boente resigned as U.S. attorney in November so the Trump administration could nominate its own appointee to the powerful position.
The FBI did not immediately say why Wray chose Boente for general counsel. But those close to Boente said he had hoped to find a way to remain in the department where he spent more than 30 years, working long days and weekends.
“He loves his job,” Rossi said. “He is married to the Department of Justice.”