On Thursday night, President Donald Trump dialed into Sean Hannity’s TV show and said this of Robert Mueller’s probe: “This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.” He wasn’t talking about the now-well-established efforts by Russia to steal the 2016 election. He was talking about the investigation by the special counsel that sought to assess whether the Trump campaign coordinated with that effort or obstructed justice by hampering the investigation into that question. For a week now, since the redacted Mueller report has been public, Trump has been blasting it (an “Illegally Started Hoax”) and Mueller’s team (“written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters”). Thursday night, at about the same time Trump was talking about attempted coups, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who witnessed all of the conduct laid bare in the Mueller report, tried to defend the Justice Department in a speech to the Armenian Bar Association’s Public Servants Dinner in New York City.
Rosenstein went to great lengths to celebrate the independence and dignity of both the DOJ and the rule of law. Indeed, he quoted no less an authority than Trump, who apparently once said that “we govern ourselves in accordance with the rule of law rather [than] … the whims of an elite few or the dictates of collective will.”
It was a few days too early to be a bit at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but on the same night Trump himself was telling Hannity that he had no intention of allowing anyone in his administration to comply with lawful congressional subpoenas, Rod Rosenstein was holding Trump out as the man well suited to define law and order for the rest of us. The deputy attorney general also called out former FBI Director James Comey and President Barack Obama by name for their responsibility in allowing the Russia hack. (Not surprisingly, this accusation became the only news from the dinner Fox News saw fit to print). But while the deputy attorney general did confirm that “there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord, and undermine America,” he didn’t mention that when Kirstjen Nielsen, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, attempted to discuss potential Russian interference in the 2020 election, she was advised to stop raising it with the president. In other words, Obama’s to blame for letting it happen, but we can’t even remind Trump that it is likely to happen again. Because we all perform for an audience of one.
As Fox aired television Judge Andrew Napolitano’s assessment that Donald Trump had clearly committed multiple acts of obstruction for which he could be charged criminally, Rosenstein singled out politicians and the press for derision and scorn. His selective prosecution of wrongdoers included this claim: “Then there are the mercenary critics, who get paid [emphasis mine] to express passionate opinions about any topic, often with little or no information. They do not just express disagreement. They launch ad hominem attacks unrestricted by truth or morality. They make threats, spread fake stories, and even attack your relatives.”
Let’s replay that? “They launch ad hominem attacks unrestricted by truth or morality. They make threats, spread fake stories, and even attack your relatives.” He was not talking about Trump, surprisingly enough. He’s talking about the media. Trump, recall, is the living embodiment of the rule of law.
Rosenstein went on: “Some of the nonsense that passes for breaking news today would not be worth the paper was printed on, if anybody bothered to print it.” But let’s recall that he’s left it to that selfsame media to report on the things he cannot bring himself to say out loud—Russian hacks included. Indeed, he all but forgot to note that the assaults on the rule of law, on the DOJ, and on the “truth” and “evidence” and “facts” he celebrated in his remarks come from the president as much as anywhere else.
In a more generous mood, one might perhaps recognize that with his speech, Rosenstein was simply attempting to build up and fortify the Justice Department and the Mueller probe and the existence of incontrovertible facts and legal processes. That is, ultimately, what Robert Mueller himself was attempting to do, with the stoic silences and the refusal to rise to the president’s bait, even as the president dismisses his work as “bullshit.” Rosenstein—as he himself noted wryly on Thursday evening—inherited a hot mess and did his best to protect the rule of law and the pursuit of truth. But I don’t think we should afford much generosity to Rosenstein today, as he was almost joyfully critical of both journalism and the political branches in ways that only hurt both the Mueller probe and the rule of law. At his most flippant, he claimed that “in politics, belief is the whole ballgame. In politics—as in journalism—the rules of evidence do not apply.” Of course, these attacks, on the paid press and on evidence-free journalism, were being narrowcast to an audience of exactly one, but even if Trump believes that inflammatory words have no collateral consequences, Rosenstein knows better.
Nothing about truth and facts and democracy is well served by public servants who decry politics and journalism as outside the project of truth seeking and evidence, especially if it’s carrying water for a president who is intent on trashing politics and journalism and the rule of law. One can imagine that in some crabbed version of splitting the baby, Rosenstein figured that if he could bolster the truth behind Russian interference and insult the journalists and political branches that first took it seriously, the end result would be a wash. Trump would be pleased that his deputy attorney general was mocking his enemies, and Americans would be reminded that the Justice Department is independent and honorable because it’s still willing to accept that Russian interference is real. But everyone who makes some version of that bargain—give Trump a bit of a cuddle and try to prop up institutions as he goes—ends up getting burned. Because although the president accepts the accolades—he doubtless loves being cited as the last word in defining the rule of law—he’s still going to take down legal institutions anyhow.
Nobody expected Rod Rosenstein to protect Robert Mueller by calling Donald Trump a vengeful bully. But in calling the media and elected officials paid and cynical liars, he’s again used the president’s tools to do further harm to the very institutions he seeks to defend. For all his lofty talk of the law as a grand cathedral, his speech will go down as yet another monument to the half-truths that now masquerade as political courage. That’s how we got to this place, where a Fox News judge is willing to call out criminal conduct in the White House as the Justice Department insults the political branches and the free press.