Rod Rosenstein and Iraqi WMD
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came into his present job with bipartisan support and a positive reputation as an apolitical prosecutor who had served ably as a U.S. attorney under both the previous two administrations. Now many are asking how someone like that could allow himself to become a tool of Donald Trump in one of the messiest and most controversial firings ever of a senior official. Much of the dysfunction, ruthlessness, and ineptitude associated with the sacking of James Comey as FBI director is specific to Trump and his presidency, but we have seen before the exploitation for blame-shifting purposes of the work of honest and earnest public servants.
We don’t know exactly what transpired in conversation among the president, attorney general, and deputy attorney general about the FBI directorship. Maybe there is a recording that someday will tell us that. But given what we know from the characteristics of the personages involved and other indications, it is easy to reconstruct a plausible way such a conversation went. The president summons the Justice Department officials to discuss problems involving the FBI director. The conversation addresses some of Comey’s missteps in handling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Rosenstein, an experienced prosecutor attuned to the details of correct relations between prosecutors and investigators, had already developed thoughts on this subject, some of which he conveys to the president in the conversation. The president instructs Rosenstein to put down on paper a more thorough rendering of ways in which Comey did not properly observe roles and rules regarding the FBI and the Justice Department. The conversation ends, and Rosenstein goes away with his writing assignment.
The White House then uses the resulting memorandum as supposed justification in announcing the firing of Comey, with the initial White House version being that the president was acting on the recommendation of the Justice Department leadership—which primarily meant Rosenstein, given that his memo was the main piece of paper released as justification, and given that the president and whoever else in the White House may have been influencing him on this were eager to exploit Rosenstein’s reputation as an upstanding and nonpartisan player with pure motivations.
But Rosenstein did not recommend that Comey be fired. His memo does not say so, and given that it doesn’t, it is unlikely that he made any such recommendation orally either. It thus is not surprising to read reports that Rosenstein was so upset about the White House portraying him as responsible for firing Comey that Rosenstein was on the verge of resigning. He has a right to be upset. Possibly the prospect of a Rosenstein resignation over this issue was part of what led Trump then to offer a much different explanation, in which Trump admitted that he had already decided to fire Comey no matter what the Justice Department leaders said and that what was on his mind in doing so was the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Set aside for the moment all the other inconsistencies and falsehoods that define the Trump presidency, and there are two important takeaways from this episode and specifically Rosenstein’s role in it. One is that it is erroneous to treat confirmation that a problem exists, or has existed, as if such confirmation constitutes a case for taking a specific drastic action in the name of correcting that problem—especially if the action involved is apt to have other untoward and costly consequences. Certifying that James Comey exceeded his role or made other mistakes in handling a case last year does not constitute a case for firing him this year. There is nothing inconsistent in being sharply critical of some of Comey’s earlier actions and also being opposed to cutting short what is supposed to be a ten-year term for FBI directors, a term established by law partly to try to insulate the bureau from the vicissitudes of politics. (The only other FBI director to be fired short of term, William Sessions, was dismissed for specific ethical violations involving use of public resources for private purposes.)
The other takeaway is that an honest public servant, doing his best to respect rules and assigned roles, and trying to perform his own role with objective judgment and insight, has been used by his political masters as a scapegoat for their own controversial actions. The temptation for political masters to do this sort of thing can be great, and not just for a Donald Trump. The nonpolitical bureaucracy, or a nonpolitical individual who rises as high as Rosenstein has risen, offers a stamp of nonpartisanship, objectivity, and often expert authority that can deflect attention from less commendable motives or methods that the political masters used in arriving at their decision.