On Friday, the Department of Justice detonated a legal bombshell, announcing the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election. It was just as fascinating to watch who was doing the detonating. Standing at the podium was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Donald Trump’s much-reviled “Democrat from Baltimore,” who is widely believed to be just barely hanging on to his day job as special counsel Robert Mueller’s minder and whose deputy has just lurched off the national stage for a gig at Walmart.
This was a fairly impressive piece of political maneuvering. On the one hand, it makes any attempt by Trump to remove Rosenstein an even more explicit obstruction of justice. Rosenstein has, after all, just publicly linked himself to indictments of Russians (foreigners!) who tried to throw the election to Trump. He’s also linked himself even more tightly with Mueller and the special counsel’s investigation, which turned up the evidence presented in Friday’s indictment. Rosenstein now indisputably stands for the proposition that Russia interfered in the election and that anyone who denies this is lying. Earlier this week, incidentally, CNN reported that “Trump still isn’t buying that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.”
Perhaps most importantly, Rosenstein—merely by standing at that podium—presented a unified front, backing up the proposition that the DOJ as a whole (with the possible exception of attorney general Jeff Sessions) takes Russian interference seriously. And in stating up front that nothing in this indictment alleges that “any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” he cleared the Trump campaign of knowing collusion. For now.
Obviously, things can change, but for today Rosenstein has allowed the president himself and Sean Hannity types to scream “no collusion” even when the door hasn’t been shut on that possibility. Effective Friday afternoon, Rosenstein looks to be on the side of protecting us from Russian meddling. He’s also given some cover to the president, a fact that might protect him from Trump’s morning rage tweets, at least for a week or two. And hovering silently over Friday’s telenovela was “Bobby Three Sticks” Mueller. He says nothing. Nothing is leaked. That silence is powerful, as theater goes.
The fact that I believe Rosenstein just rendered himself a little bit more bulletproof likely means he is less so. Jed Shugerman of Fordham Law School reminds me via email that the fact that the optics have changed doesn’t mean Rosenstein is actually safe. “Until Congress passes a veto-proof bill to protect Mueller from firing without cause, what makes Trump think that there would be a significant cost to firing Mueller or Rosenstein?” Shugerman asks. “Every indictment raises the stakes of obstruction but also increases the chance of a temper tantrum firing with no clear consequences until Congress changes hands. If Congress can’t pass a Mueller statute, in the very least the Senate Intelligence Committee needs to make a more public stance.”
In other words, soberly intoning that someone has just rendered themselves bulletproof, in the face of a president who has said he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue with impunity, is never smart. But on this day, at this hour, I can’t help thinking Mueller and Rosenstein just pulled off a slick move that protects the independence of the DOJ, at least for the moment. With this president, that’s about the best you can do.