The big headline from Rod J. Rosenstein’s speeches Monday was his broadside against James B. Comey. After Comey wrote an op-ed suggesting Rosenstein’s “soul” had been consumed “in small bites” by President Trump, Rosenstein dismissed Comey as a “partisan pundit” who had abandoned the principles of law enforcement.
But a look between the lines suggests Rosenstein isn’t overly confident about his own conduct. In fact, they suggest he might carry some regret — or at least lingering questions.
The source of the tension between the two men is obvious: In May 2017, Rosenstein, the now-recently departed deputy attorney general, authored a memo that President Trump used to justify Comey’s firing as FBI director. Rosenstein has stood by the memo publicly, but reporting has suggested he has rued that decision and felt used by Trump.
In his pair of speeches Monday, Rosenstein addressed the situation in a not entirely confident manner.
Speaking to the Greater Baltimore Committee on Monday night, Rosenstein called the memo “reasonable under the circumstances” but added that he would have liked to list the “pros and cons” if he had been asked to make a recommendation about Comey’s firing.
“If I had been the decision-maker, the removal would have been handled very differently, with far more respect and far less drama,” Rosenstein said. “So I do not blame the former director for being angry.”
The phrase “reasonable under the circumstances” sticks out here. That’s not exactly a resounding affirmation of a high-profile decision. Rosenstein added that, “I think I made the right calls on the things that mattered” (“I think”). And earlier Monday, Rosenstein told graduates of the University of Baltimore Law School, “You need to be prepared to compromise when you can do so without violating your principles.” The combined takeaway seems to be that Rosenstein felt conflicted and that he found accommodations that, while far from ideal, were at least consistent with his own personal code.
Then we get to perhaps the most interesting part of Rosenstein’s GBC speech: the end. Rosenstein recalled an award the group had given him even as the Comey drama was unfolding. Rosenstein was selected for the Howard “Pete” Rawlings Courage in Public Service Award before he was nominated to be Trump’s deputy attorney general. He wound up accepting it on May 15 — six days after Comey’s firing.
Here’s what Rosenstein said to conclude his speech: “I probably did not deserve it at the time. I do not know whether I earned it since then. But I tried my best. It is nice to be home. Thank you very much."
This could be chalked up to humility. But saying he “probably did not deserve” an award for courage six days after Trump used his memo to fire Comey is hard to completely dismiss as modesty. And in the next sentence, he suggests the award might be more warranted for his work since then.
In isolation, that conclusion would be interesting. Against the rest of his commentary about the understandably tough decisions he made as deputy attorney general, it suggests a man who isn’t completely at peace.