On Monday afternoon, Rod Rosenstein submitted his letter of resignation, effective May 11. After 27 years of government service in the Department of Justice, for his parting words he used his reptilian claws to clack out the campaign slogan of the President to whom he promised and then delivered absolution because he was afraid a babyman with a brain made out of Diet Coke would call him Mr. Peepers on Twitter.
Here are some other nuggets from Rosenstein’s resignation letter:
—Says “make America great.”
—Complains about how long he had the job: “The median tenure of a Deputy Attorney General is 16 months, and few serve longer than two years.”
—Quotes Trump from his inaugural address.
—Flatters Trump’s personality. (“I am grateful to you for the opportunity to serve; for the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations…”)
—Soothes Trump’s insecurity. (“Truth is not determined by opinion polls.”)
—Attacks the press. (“A republic that endures is not governed by the news cycle.”)
—Signs off with, again, Trump’s campaign slogan, “America first.”
One letter. The Deputy Attorney General. Both campaign slogans. Just so there’s no mistake.
When we first met Rod Rosenstein, he was Trump’s freshly minted DAG, whom Trump shoved against his will into the spotlight after firing FBI Director James Comey. At first blush, Rosenstein appeared a little afraid. After all, he’d just watched—and taken part in—Comey’s firing. But despite Rosenstein’s pivotal role in that arguably obstructive act, the public was generally willing to trust the investigation to him. The bookish, serious Rosenstein was a career employee—at the time the longest-serving U.S. Attorney—and his decades of service and reputation as an institutionalist rightly earned him the benefit of the doubt on both sides of the aisle. One notable exception: James Comey, who worried about Rosenstein’s character: “Rod is a survivor. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. So I have concerns.”
Two years later, Rosenstein proved Comey right.
If Rosenstein will be remembered—which in all honesty isn’t very likely—it will indeed be for the two acts of sycophancy that bookended the Mueller investigation. First, when Trump asked, Rosenstein wrote a recommendation the President would use as what Rosenstein knew at the time was a false pretense to fire Comey. Then at the end of the subsequent investigation—which, through that act and appointing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Rosenstein was partly responsible for—the DAG lent his imprimatur to the only exculpatory phrase in Attorney General William Barr’s letter summing up the Mueller report: The phrase that officially exonerated Trump of the crime of obstruction of justice, based on evidence no one outside a few dozen DOJ employees had seen, 48 hours after Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his 448-page report. That single phrase ran interference for Trump for weeks and established an official government narrative impossible to counter until the full and truly damning evidence of Trump’s obstruction came to light.
That phrase, and the time it bought, might prove be the one thing that saves Trump from impeachment. And this is where it gets weird, because two years ago Rosenstein wanted to throw the president out of office. Around the time he appointed Mueller, Rosenstein raised rightful concerns about Trump’s mental state and possible compromise after Trump met two senior Russian government officials in the Oval Office—with only Russian press present; he barred U.S. reporters—and assured them that in firing the “crazy” Comey he’d “lifted the cloud” of the Russia investigation. This led the FBI to open a standalone counterintelligence investigation into Trump specifically as a possible Russian agent or asset, and in one of the meetings about that investigation, Rosenstein reportedly discussed with fellow DOJ officials how best to remove Trump from office, including considering the unprecedented step of invoking the twenty-fifth amendment and volunteering to wear a wire when he met with the president in the White House.
When that story came out last September, it infuriated Trump and nearly cost Rosenstein his job. But as Comey predicted, Rosenstein survived.
How? According to a Washington Post report last week, Rosenstein, afraid for his job (reportedly he said he ”[doesn’t] want to go out with a tweet”), called Trump—at the time the subject of a criminal investigation Rosenstein was personally overseeing—and effectively promised the President absolution: “I give the investigation credibility,” Rosenstein said, according to an administration official quoted in the report. “I can land the plane.”
Now why would the president want the Mueller investigation to have credibility unless he’d also been assured the investigation would turn out in his favor? One senior administration official told the Post that Trump left the call with the impression that Rosenstein was “on the team after all.”
Rosenstein then met in private with Trump on Air Force One and left that meeting with a smile, gainfully employed, and in no danger of humiliation on Twitter.
(Two months later, Trump tweeted a photo of Rosenstein behind bars. But that also lent Rosenstein credibility: We felt assured Trump thought he was a bad guy, and therefore a good guy.)
We now know Rosenstein made good on his promises to Trump. This scandal—ugh: Muellergate?—will unravel further when Rosenstein testifies in front of Congress, as is almost certain.
How did Rosenstein, in a year and a half, go from wanting to throw Trump out of office because he was a national security threat to wanting to keep Trump in office? It’s a mystery. Perhaps Rosenstein decided it wasn’t his place to contribute to an action that would lead to national upheaval, a constitutional nightmare, and almost certainly some level of political violence. He might have decided in an unfathomably selfish and cowardly chain of logic it was best to push that responsibility to others, such as Congress. He then might have seen a fellow spirit in Barr, who in his exoneration relieved the DOJ of challenging the president—which would no doubt be framed as a coup—while simultaneously dodging the daunting issue of revisiting DOJ guidance that a sitting president can’t be indicted.
Or he might just be looking out for himself. He might want another shot at a judgeship, for instance. (In 2007, President Bush nominated Rosenstein to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Rosenstein, at the time a Maryland resident, was blocked by his state’s Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, who said he didn’t have strong enough ties to Maryland.) He’ll write a book and go on TV. And Rosenstein—a faithful Republican loyalist—might also have, like so many former never-Trumpers, chosen partisan loyalty over duty…and over what they know full well to be a national security threat. After all, such partisan jellyfish don’t lurk only in the halls of Congress, but in institutions such as the DOJ. The bet here, it seems, is a bad one and misses that very point: Those institutions have so far prevented Trump from indulging the worst of his authoritarian instincts, such people reason, therefore they can stand another two years. Possibly six.
It’s a sad, self-serving, and stupid bet. If Trump lasts long enough to run again in 2020, there can be no good outcome. Trump will either win and, empowered with renewed legitimacy, clean house of anyone in his way, or he will lose and spend the last three months of his presidency as a very angry and very dangerous “lame duck” with nothing to lose.
So though Rosenstein might have survived death-by-tweet, his legacy won’t survive. In all honesty, Rosenstein—apparently as ambitious and arrogant a political figure as anyone in D.C.—probably won’t be well-remembered for anything, good or bad. He’ll meet the fate of all peripheral characters: History will suffocate him. After all, he was second-fiddle to all of this. He’d never have been a hero—that would have been either Mueller or Barr, not the DAG. Who was Nixon’s Deputy Attorney General? Who was any president’s? We didn’t know Sally Yates’ name until she demonstrated remarkable backbone. Rosenstein threw his spaghetti spine on the backsplash of the U.S. government, but it won’t stick.
What kind of person is this? What kind of person sees Rome burning and, knowing who set the fire, turns his back? What kind of person watches the entire purpose for their being—for their life’s work, for everything they’ve ever done and stood for—collapse around him at the whims of an idiot, watches idly while that idiot humiliates and fires his colleagues and friends, and instead of using his unique set of powers to right this wrong, only says, “Well, not me”? Who could promise absolution to a president whose derangement he (and everyone around him) witnessed firsthand so many times that he thought he should be removed from power, but ultimately do nothing?
Beyond that: Who can watch all this and then come out on the other side, clean, snide, and reborn holier than all of us? Has anyone outside of Trump himself so flagrantly flaunted his corruption, so arrogantly dismissed—or at best, mocked—the intelligence of Americans? With Trump we know what we’re getting, and even though what we’re getting is a firehose of dumbness, deceit, and derangement, in a way we’re sort of fine with it. But Rosenstein? A reptilian coward of nearly Shakespearean scale. A nerdy Iago. And for a time he had us fooled.
When Rosenstein assumed oversight of the Russia investigation, I had the extraordinary foresight to write a piece about why we should in fact trust him. “If you thought Rosenstein was a bad guy, you’re wrong,” I said. “Rod Rosenstein will be considered a hero,” I said. “Rod Rosenstein is a smart motherf*****r,” I said.
Two years later, I issue this retraction: None of that is true.