However, informed legal observers had their suspicions about him from the start. How did he get roped into writing a memo that served as the phony excuse for firing then-FBI Director James B. Comey? Why didn’t he recuse himself once it became apparent he was witness to a key event in a possible obstruction-of-justice case?
Then things got weird as we learned about his comments regarding the 25th Amendment and (joking or not) suggesting recording the president. He was a survivor, ex-Justice Department attorneys warned, suggesting he’d bend over backward to accommodate himself to those in power. He had been in an emotional tailspin, longtime colleagues suggested.
A mortal blow to Rosenstein’s reputation among legal observers, former Justice officials and Democrats was his supporting a grossly misleading letter drafted by Attorney General William P. Barr and standing mutely and awkwardly at Barr’s side when he delivered even more misleading remarks to the press.
And finally came the blockbuster story of his groveling for his job, fearing he’d be fired by tweet. (Ben Wittes tweeted, “The fundamental problem with Rod Rosenstein in one quotation. If you’re not willing to go … out with a tweet, you are already negotiating away your integrity.”) Here he crossed every ethical line. Compare his negotiating with the subject of an investigation to keep his job with Comey’s refusal to give Trump a pledge of loyalty.
How different things would have been if Rosenstein had quit immediately after his memo was proferred as an excuse for firing Comey. He might have come out the hero — and cut short Trump’s course of conduct detailed in Mueller’s report, which many prosecutors and dispassionate observers think amounts to obstruction of justice.
Rosenstein’s exit letter was one more slobbery kiss for the president:
As I submit my resignation effective on May 11, I am grateful to you for the opportunity to serve; for the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations; and for the goals you set in your inaugural address: patriotism, unity, safety, education, and prosperity, because “a nation exists to serve its citizens.”
Rosenstein patted himself and Justice on the back for the department’s pursuit of justice without “fear or favor” (except when pleading for his own job?) and determination to ignore “fleeting distractions.” It was in keeping with his highly partisan speech last week attacking the Democrats (!) for failing to stop Russian interference, which Trump continued to deny or downplay. “We keep the faith, we follow the rules, and we always put America first,” he said after a tenure in which he buckled under to partisan pressure and helped Trump create a smokescreen to conceal the full impact of the Mueller report.
“Rosenstein talks a lot about the rule of law in very eloquent ways,” former prosecutor Mimi Rocah tells me. “But his recent actions — signing on to Barr’s letter which misrepresented the Mueller report and gave a legally indefensible and unnecessary conclusion, standing behind Barr at a press conference that was more like a defense closing argument — directly threaten the rule of law, because he no longer looks like someone leading the DOJ in neutral ways.” She adds that “we can’t have faith in decisions he’s made. For him to cite Trump as a defender of the rule [of law] given the damage he has done to the DOJ and FBI as institutions is shameful.”
Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe describes Rosenstein’s tenure: “Self-serving. Self-protective. Filled with ethical compromise. Not exactly disgraceful. But not graceful either. Anything but heroic.”
History is not likely to treat Rosenstein well. He was weak when strength was required, cowardly when courage was called for. He’s no Mueller.