Opinion writer

On Monday, President Trump met at the White House with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats (among others) about the investigation into “any irregularities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s or the Department of Justice’s tactics concerning the Trump Campaign” and congressional access to highly confidential material. This set off a furious reaction among those concerned with the erosion of democratic norms. There is widespread agreement outside of Trumpland that the meeting between investigators responsible for an inquiry into the president’s misconduct and those directly involved in the investigation is unprecedented and alarming. When it comes to the wisdom of Rosenstein and Wray’s attendance, there are two schools of thought.

As a preliminary matter, let’s note that all three of these are Trump appointees, all three have publicly attested that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump and none has a close personal relationship with Trump (nor does, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions).

One side, aptly represented by experts such as Jack Goldsmith, argues that we need to cut Rosenstein and Wray some slack. “Some people think they already should have resigned because of the president’s attacks on the integrity and independence of DOJ and FBI. They would certainly have plenty of reason to resign in protest,” he said in an interview with Isaac Chotiner. “But the main reason they appear to be staying on is to see the investigation through. It would disrupt the investigation for an uncertain period, and in an uncertain but probably bad way if Rosenstein, Wray, or Mueller left for any reason. That’s why I think we should support them in their decision to stay on, take the heat, and see the investigation to its completion, or at least as far towards completion as possible.” He added, “​I am sure there are red lines, but given the stakes of resignation, and Trump’s unpredictable behavior, it is hard to know what they are.” The thinking is that the meeting was a tactical concession that gives up little ground, a means of deflecting Trump that permits them to do their work.

Others, including former attorney general Eric Holder, argue that the meeting was a hugely significant breach of democratic norms and Justice Department practice. Accordingly, Wray and Rosenstein are essentially enabling, rather than curtailing Trump’s trashing of constitutional norms. These critics worry that Rosenstein and Wray are incrementally damaging the very norms they want to protect.

I find the latter argument a little hard to fathom given that Wray and Rosenstein almost surely consulted with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III before attending. Moreover, Rosenstein has demonstrated that he is determined to give Mueller wide berth to conduct the investigation, including a recent public declaration that the Justice Department would “not be extorted.” Unless he has experienced a complete change of heart, one should imagine that in agreeing to the meeting he did not consider himself to be a victim of extortion.

I would suggest a third take on the meeting: Wray and Rosenstein, with Mueller’s full backing, might be setting up Trump. We know Mueller is already pursuing an obstruction-of-justice inquiry that might relate to acts such as Trump firing former FBI director James B. Comey, falsely accusing him of illegally leaking confidential material, pressuring Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, helping draft a phony cover story to explain the June 9 Trump Tower meeting and conducting an extended campaign to smear, discredit and disrupt the work of the FBI and the special counsel. In that vein, wouldn’t a meeting directly ordering Wray and Rosenstein to conduct what amounts to a wild goose chase and to put confidential material into the hands of congressional allies be part of the pattern of possible obstruction they are investigating?

Goodness knows what Trump said in the meeting and what he revealed about his intent with regard to outing the previously secret source. Moreover, Wray and Rosenstein already may have a very good idea who leaked the name of the source (initially to the right-wing Daily Caller, it appears) and may be keen to see whether the materials shared with congressional Republicans get leaked as well. (They, too, understand the finite protections of the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause.)

This isn’t, alas, the “Deep State” at work. Remember, it’s Trump himself who is demanding the inquiry and document sharing; it’s his appointees who are complying with his wishes. If this is the “Deep State,” then it is so devious as to draft Trump and his top associates into its secret enclave.

But let’s get back to reality. Going to the meeting, taking copious notes, analyzing the notes to determine the propriety of Trump’s comments and referring that information over to Mueller is precisely what any responsible law-enforcement officials would do. It was, come to think of it, precisely what Comey did.

In short, I’m certainly inclined to give Rosenstein and Wray the benefit of the doubt as to their efforts to navigate around Trump. In fact, I’m willing to bet they knew exactly what they are doing and saw utility in having the meeting. We’ll know soon enough whether that meeting was part of the investigation, not an attempt to protect the investigation.

UPDATE: The Daily Caller denies it got the source’s name from a leak.