The most bizarre passage in Rod Rosenstein’s letter to President Trump resigning his post as deputy attorney general is praise for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations.” It is not standard practice for the president to have personal conversations with the deputy attorney general at all, certainly not when that person is supervising an investigation into the president himself. And while we cannot know the substance of those personal conversations, we do know that Rosenstein was once so alarmed by Trump’s behavior that he discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to have him removed on account of mental unfitness.
Maybe Trump’s private conversations somehow contain the humor that is completely lacking in his public persona, which consist of boasts, lies, and belittling attacks. Trump’s public treatment of Rosenstein included tweeting an image of him behind bars along with other alleged traitors. That Trump, what a jokester.
Rosenstein’s status as a target of Trump’s rage, and his background as a career official, raised broad hopes that he would check the president’s authoritarian impulses. By all indications, he failed to live up to this heroic destiny. Rosenstein ended his career as a dutiful functionary, allowing Trump to trash the rule of law while claiming he had upheld it.
Rosenstein deserves to be judged by the forgiving standards of a man placed in an untenable situation and having no good options. Trump’s worldview is inimical to the concept of the rule of law. The president believes the Department of Justice can and must be placed at his personal disposal, and used to harass his enemies while giving himself and his friends impunity. Trump can no more grasp a Department of Justice that holds his views at arm length than he could abide the doorman at his hotels subjecting him to strip searches.
Rosenstein’s answer to this dilemma was to bend, and bend, and bend. When Trump demanded personal loyalty from the FBI director and fired him for failing to quash a probe into Trump’s campaign, Rosenstein dutifully wrote a letter supplying Trump with a phony pretext. When Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the offense of following Department rules and recusing himself from an investigation into which he was massively conflicted, he remained loyal. When Trump installed a transparent hack in Matthew Whitaker, prompting more than 400 former DOJ officials to sign a public letter of protest, Rosenstein called the choice “superb.”
And then of course Rosenstein joined with Attorney General William Barr to impose their judgment that Robert Mueller’s investigation would not accuse the president of obstructing justice. One of Trump’s many acts of obstruction included instructing Corey Lewandowski, a private citizen, to order Sessions to violate Department procedure and take control of the investigation. As Ben Wittes notes, “If true and provable beyond a reasonable doubt, it is unlawful obstruction of justice.”
Barr, with Rosenstein’s imprimatur, deemed these and all of Trump’s other efforts to harm the investigation to be non-crimes. He did this despite the fact that Trump’s obstruction of justice successfully obstructed the probe – by dangling pardons to key witnesses, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, thereby preventing Mueller from getting to the bottom of the campaign’s collusion with Russia. Barr and Rosenstein made the comically backward argument that because Trump prevented Mueller from proving criminal collusion, there was no underlying crime, therefore his efforts to halt the probe must go unpunished.
Before his firing, Comey confided his misgivings about Rosenstein. “Rod is a survivor,” he said. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. “So I have concerns.” This turned out to be a perfect epitaph for Rosenstein’s tenure.
When Trump was poised to fire Rosenstein last fall, Rosenstein pleaded for his job. “I give the investigation credibility,” he said, according to the Washington Post, “I can land the plane.” Trump has a gift for homing in on this kind of weakness, and surrounding himself with morally compromised individuals who will do his bidding. Rosenstein’s desperation to avoid the ignominy of a firing and the torrent of abuse that always followed it – “I don’t want to go out with a tweet,” he said, according to the Post – made him suitably pathetic for Trump’s purposes.
In a farewell speech several days ago, Rosenstein sycophantically quoted his boss: “As President Trump pointed out, ‘we govern ourselves in accordance with the rule of law rather [than] … the whims of an elite few.’” It was perhaps his most overt gesture of submission. Here Rosenstein credited a man he knows perfectly well has contempt for the rule of law with cherishing the principle he has relentlessly undermined, a task at which Rosenstein ultimately aided him. He might as well have quoted Trump proclaiming the importance of truth, chastity and frugality.
We can extend Rosenstein enough credit to assume things did not follow his fondest hopes. He surely did not want the FBI Director and Attorney general to be fired for doing their jobs properly, nor to be publicly belittled by the president. Instead he seems to have convinced himself that the need for normalcy, or the appearance of it, transcended everything else. After principled resignation seemed unthinkable, every new compromise simply kept the plane on track for its landing.
It turns out most of the Republicans in the bureaucracy operate along the same principles as the ones running for office. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office and disdain for democratic norms begin as a shock. Gradually, though, they recede into the background, and take their place as fixed features of the landscape around which everything else must be arranged. That is how Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have worked around and ultimately for a figure they greeted with disgust. And that ultimately is how Rosenstein, too, served Trump.