Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Deputy editorial page editor, columnist

The line between appeasement and deflection is inevitably blurry. It tends to be written in invisible ink, discernible only in the clarifying light of retrospect, when the damage has already been done.

This tension, and this danger, has been evident in the recent outbreak of open warfare between President Trump and his Justice Department. The president, always itching to yell “Witch Hunt,” has switched to claiming “spy” with wild assertions of improper campaign infiltration and loud demands that this pseudo-scandal be investigated.

The dispute is a subset of the broader dilemma for any political appointee in the age of Trump: Is it possible to serve both this president and the greater good? Is it better to be inside, attempting to mitigate the damage he is capable of causing? Or is that a sucker’s game, one that Trump, uncontainable, will always win, leaving subordinates stained in the process?

The temptation is to advise avoiding signing up altogether or a quick escape at the first sign of trouble. That might be best for the individual reputation but not for the public interest. And so it is with the high-wire act that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein has found himself performing, balancing presidential demands and presidential pique against the imperative of investigative independence and, all the while, teetering on the brink of being fired.

In assessing Rosenstein’s behavior — whether he has shamefully appeased or skillfully deflected — it is important to ask: What are his goals? One surely is long-term — to guard against the dismantling of institutional boundaries between the Justice Department and the White House. Another is more immediate — to shield, for as long as possible, the investigation headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

These are not mutually exclusive aims, but they entail trading off long-term considerations in the service of short-term needs, eroding the norms bit by bit in a desperate effort to stave off immediate disaster.

In that context, judging the wisdom of Rosenstein’s accommodations becomes easier. His first decision of the past week involved turning aside Trump’s call for an investigation — “I hereby demand . . . that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes” — with the relatively harmless feint of passing the matter to the Justice Department’s inspector general.

It is not best practice to let an interested party, even if that party is the president, dictate what potential misconduct to probe. But that accommodation may be, in the scheme of things, a reasonable one. If kicking things to the inspector general serves even temporarily to placate Trump, and allows Mueller’s work to continue, what is the terrible harm?

After all, the inspector general is likely to conclude that there isn’t much to investigate, which could serve as a useful assurance for a public whipped up by Trump’s frenzied conspiracy theorizing. And if, by some chance, the situation turns out to be as sinister as in Trump’s imagining, better to have it examined.

Far more worrying — closer to crossing the line into appeasement — is the second set of decisions that Rosenstein and others made: to accept presidential demands for meetings with lawmakers about the FBI’s use of a confidential source to probe Russian involvement with the Trump campaign.

So many things were wrong here. The meetings, which Justice and intelligence officials initially balked at, were conducted at the insistence of the White House, which should stay out of an investigation of the president, not meddle in it.

Democratic lawmakers were initially excluded — on the theory, as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it, that it would be strange for Democrats to “consider themselves randomly invited to see something they never asked to.”

And the White House sent, “to relay the president’s desire for as much openness as possible under the law,” as it put it in a statement, not only the chief of staff but also the president’s in-house lawyer detailed to overseeing the investigation.

The fruit of this accommodation? Trump was back on Twitter Friday morning, with even more unhinged claims about “spies placed in a competing campaign, by the people and party in absolute power, for the sole purpose of political advantage.”

And this is the thing about Trump: No amount of capitulation will suffice. He is interested only in self-preservation, no matter what the cost to the rule of law. That grim reality raises the risk of every deviation from ordinary practice — that it will set a dangerous precedent without achieving more than a temporary reprieve — even if it does not dictate where, exactly, to draw the line.

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