Rod Rosenstein Is Complicated: The Dangers of Seeking Heroes and Villains in Washington

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Rod Rosenstein Is Complicated: The Dangers of Seeking Heroes and Villains in Washington

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is the biggest firewall between Robert Mueller’s special counsel and Donald Trump’s itsy bitsy hands. While Trump is unable to reach Mueller with Rosenstein in the way, removing the Deputy AG would partially fix that problem (someone would still be blocking the path to Mueller), so enter the House Freedom Caucus—the most useful idiots in the history of useful idiocy—and reports of them drafting articles of impeachment for Rosenstein. The Deputy Attorney General responded in kind, laughing at the incompetence of the wild pack of hyenas who run the House GOP, and asserting that “the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”

Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara (who was excommunicated by Trump), is fired up.

Freedom Caucus chairman, Mark Meadows, responded by publicly threatening Rosenstein's job.

If you're not familiar with Rod Rosenstein, you need to catch up on this season of America. He was more of an ancillary character last year, and now he's really coming into his own in a supporting role—however, he may be killed off soon. Even if you're unsure of Rosenstein's nature, you may have heard his name in passing as a target of president brain worms' ire over the “witch hunt!”

Or you may have initially heard of him in MAGA lore last season, as he helped push James Comey out the door of the FBI…over unfairly treating Hillary Clinton. The Trump presidency has never not been super weird. Remember this? Per Rosenstein's letter that Trump initially used as pretext for firing the former FBI Director:

Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

Rosenstein reportedly threatened to resign in the wake of Comey's axing, “after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation.”

If you're the kind to try to fit every actor in this Trump-Russia saga into either a “good” or “bad” box, Rosenstein presents quite a difficult case. Hashtag resistance sworn enemy-turned hero James Comey reportedly doubts Rosenstein's integrity (given that Rosenstein testified he wrote the memo knowing Trump would fire Comey, there's good reason to doubt where his true loyalty lies). Per Benjamin Wittes' conversation with Comey:

He said one other thing that day that, in retrospect, stands out in my memory: he expressed wariness about the then-still-unconfirmed deputy attorney general nominee, Rod Rosenstein. This surprised me because I had always thought well of Rosenstein and had mentioned his impending confirmation as a good thing. But Comey did not seem enthusiastic. The DOJ does need Senate-confirmed leadership, he agreed, noting that Dana Boente had done a fine job as acting deputy but that having confirmed people to make important decisions was critical. And he agreed with me that Rosenstein had a good reputation as a solid career guy.

That said, his reservations were palpable. “Rod is a survivor,” he said. And you don't get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. “So I have concerns.”

Trump has publicly mused about canning Rosenstein, and reports are that the Deputy AG is prepared to be fired. Reports also say that Rosenstein is still defending his decision to oust James Comey. Per NBC:

Rosenstein has said in recent private conversations that history will prove he did the right thing by firing Comey in May 2017, claiming that the American people do not have all the facts about what led to his decision to write the memo that led to Comey's dismissal, the sources said.

Trump is bad. Humans are complicated. The dispute between Rosenstein and Comey is a reminder that there is no unified “good” side to this story. James Comey was a villain over his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton case during the election…until he became a hero when Donald Trump fired him. Before people started really caring who the FBI Director was, Comey was famous for being a huge proponent of “collect it all” surveillance, and assailed the very concept of data encryption—imploring a need to find a way for only governments to use backdoors (if a backdoor exists, anyone with access to it can access it…that's how software works)—as he told Congress, “a whole lot of good people have said it's too hard … maybe that's so…. But my reaction to that is: I'm not sure they've really tried.”

It's a good thing that Rod Rosenstein is publicly pushing back against threats from the legislature to the power inherent in his position. If he's going out, he should go out fighting, and at least ensure that the House has a huge mess to deal with if they do impeach him. The lesson of the Trump Era is that these threats to democracy from the Republican Party are nothing new, but they are escalating, and we must take them far more seriously. Trump is just a mascot for a larger movement. Rosenstein should not be hailed as a hero for protecting the power of his position, but as a good citizen doing what is required of a man in his position of power.

The moralizing fairy tales around Trump-Russia need to stop. The history of law enforcement in America isn't even complicated at best. James Comey embodies this unreality, as this infuriatingly unaware tweet exclaims that “schools or streets” are not named for “weasels,” despite the fact that Comey worked in a building named for a man who practically invented mass domestic surveillance on this continent, and famously threatened Martin Luther King Jr. with blackmail, demanding that he kill himself.

President Harry Truman once said of this infamous FBI Director revered by Comey and his ilk:

We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.

Robert Mueller, also being held up as a modern paragon of virtue, is also far from perfect. Per retired FBI special agent Coleen Rowley (one of TIME’s Persons of the Year in 2002 for exposing the pre-9/11 failures at Mueller’s FBI):

Mueller was even OK with the CIA conducting torture programs after his own agents warned against participation. Agents were simply instructed not to document such torture, and any “war crimes files” were made to disappear. Not only did “collect it all” surveillance and torture programs continue, but Mueller’s (and then Comey’s) FBI later worked to prosecute NSA and CIA whistleblowers who revealed these illegalities.

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend here. We find ourselves in a complicated web of alliances that cannot be summarized by a pithy slogan. Nine out of ten Republicans still support Donald Trump. James Comey is a Republican. Robert Mueller is a Republican. Rod Rosenstein is a Republican. They all worked under a historically unpopular Republican president and carried out an incredibly destructive Republican agenda that helped lead us to this present moment. These men serve a vital purpose in this current investigation of a comically corrupt wannabe autocrat, but if our republic is to survive this freefall which began long before there was a President Trump, we must unburden ourselves of our love of strongmen, no matter their level of competence.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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