Author’s note: I wrote this the weekend of the 12th of May, 2017. I sent it to the New York Times and waited the obligatory three days to “publish” it. Having heard nothing from my esteemed “Gray Lady,” I offer it to you. It appears my faith in Mr. Rosenstein was well-founded.
We know it was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo that led the president to fire the director of the FBI. The Vice President said so. We also know it wasn’t Mr. Rosenstein’s memo that led to that firing. The president said so in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt this week. Of course, only one of these narratives can be correct. Mr. Rosenstein already knew exactly which it was by the time he was ordered to provide a substantive cause for the president to act against the man leading an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with a foreign power to influence the election. For the last few days, the press has dragged the deputy attorney general, who just won confirmation by a 94-6, through the ringer of innuendo and credibility assassination. They have it all wrong.
Mr. Rosenstein knew he was being used for the respect he meticulously cultivated over decades in the snake pit that is Washington. He was ordered by the president and his direct boss, who though recused in the Russian matter for his own false statements was still somehow to be a part of the decision, to provide a rationale to fire Director Comey. He did it with indisputable facts and the knowledgeable opinions of others who had served in his capacity. It’s just that he did it for a previous president. And he did that knowing that president never entertained the notion seriously and neither the new president nor the attorney general were savvy enough to catch the nuance. It was the masterstroke of a highly intelligent, extremely self-aware public servant who played his superiors in a manner both were far too dim to understand.
Mr. Rosenstein’s memo is three pages long. It accurately details Mr. Comey’s missteps and his breaks with precedent involving his public statements about Mrs. Clinton’s emails. These are well argued and indisputable. But the deputy attorney general also leaned into the president’s well observed weaknesses. He states he cannot understand the director’s “refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.” He is detailing the consensus on one matter and subtly projecting it to another before lining up former attorneys general and deputies appointed by presidents of both parties who have all concluded Director Comey made grave errors and endangered the reputation and nonpartisan nature of the FBI. He provided Mr. Trump with the possibility of using a familiar refrain from the campaign when he would say, “people are saying” and “I’ve heard this from many people” in attempts to add voracity to largely baseless claims, allegations against opponents, or his own boasts.
Mr. Rosenstein then turned his attention to Mr. Trump’s most glaring weakness, his knowledge of his own inferiority. Mr. Rosenstein tacitly reflected on Mr. Comey’s ability to provide devastating narrative by highlight what “an articulate and persuasive speaker about leadership and the immutable principles of the Department of Justice” he was. Mr. Trump had demanded Mr. Comey’s loyalty at a dinner, the circumstances of which are now in doubt, and was rebuffed. For all his faults, the director maintained the integrity to hold himself apart from our president’s royal tendencies. He would later confirm the FBI’s investigation of the campaign and destroy the credibility of the president’s claims of illegal surveillance by his predecessor. Articulate and persuasive were qualities Mr. Trump could not abide in a subordinate who would never kiss the ring. Mr. Rosenstein knew exactly what he was doing.
The end of the letter is telling. The deputy attorney general never unequivocally recommends removal. Most ominously, Mr. Rosenstein opens that last paragraph with, “Although the President has the power to remove the FBI Director, the decision should not be taken lightly.” He offered the president a life-line, but he knew the president’s mind was already made up. He knew Comey’s firing had nothing to do with whatever he would write. He also knew the president and his staff would initially claim it was his recommendation that drove the action, so Mr. Rosenstein crafted an entirely accurate rationale that was so preposterous any thinking human would never believe it. And so it passed that the president of the United States, who led the chants of “Lock her up!” on the campaign trail and cheered Comey’s actions just days before the election, supposedly fired the Director of the FBI for the way he publicly mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Mr. Rosenstein could not foresee his great fortune that the president would leg sweep his entire staff, including the Vice President, and claim the decision was his alone. That the president would also admit “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia” was on his mind when he decided to take that action? Well that was something he could never have dreamed.
Mr. Rosenstein’s reputation did not just shrink. His credibility can hardly be questioned when what he wrote is absolute truth. The deputy attorney general just proved himself to be a formidable player with a ruthless intellect. Those with lesser capabilities should take note. What he does next with that intellect may very well make him a historical figure in the defense of democracy. It will certainly determine how history takes the ultimate measure of the man. I hope he chooses wisely. I suspect he will.