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Rod Rosenstein officially bows out -- and bows to Trump

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/29/2019 Aaron Blake
Rod Rosenstein wearing a suit and tie: Outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg) © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg Outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

President Trump suggested Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein participated in the planning of “a very illegal act” against him. He suggested Rosenstein was a “totally conflicted” overseer of the Russia investigation. He flirted with firing him, saying he had the right to do so “absolutely.” And he regularly derided him as a Democrat from Baltimore, even though neither was true; Rosenstein is a Republican from Pennsylvania.

On Monday, after spending the last few weeks defending and lending his credibility to Attorney General William P. Barr’s handling of the end of the Russia probe, Rosenstein announced his resignation with a distinctly pro-Trump message.

In his resignation letter announcing his impeding exit on May 11, Rosenstein praised Trump’s inaugural message two years ago and said he was grateful “for the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations.” He even signed off by borrowing Trump’s political slogan, saying, “We keep the faith, we follow the rules, and we always put America first.” 

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The last few weeks for Rosenstein have been a whirlwind. After drawing Trump’s ire as the overseer of the Russia probe and occasionally offering tough words for his Republican critics, Rosenstein vouched for Barr’s controversial letter summarizing the principal conclusions of the Mueller report. Then he joined in Barr’s controversial decision to clear Trump of obstruction, even though special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had decided Justice Department policy meant he couldn’t make such a call. He then stood behind Barr unflinchingly, as Barr misleadingly pre-spun the Mueller report ahead of its public release.

Rosenstein’s letter is not a paean to his onetime antagonist, Trump. But it is a notable document against the backdrop of their personal relationship. Other Trump appointees have exited office with not terribly subtle slights against a president they perceived as overstepping professional lines -- even those involving a man who gave them their jobs. Rosenstein’s letter is nothing of the sort. If anything, it suggests he holds no ill will against the president who once tweeted a meme suggesting he should be on trial for treason and continues to suggest he engaged in the early days of a “coup” against him.

Rosenstein spends an entire paragraph of his letter quoting previous Justice Department leaders who talked about the importance of insulating the department from politics.

“Facing ‘corrosive skepticism and cynicism concerning the administration of justice’ in 1975, Edward Levi urged us to ‘make clear by word and deed that our law is not an instrument of partisan purpose, and it is not ... to be used in ways which are careless of the higher values ... within us all,'" Rosenstein writes. “In 2001, John Ashcroft called for ‘a professional Justice Department ... free from politics ... uncompromisingly fair ... defined by integrity and dedicated to upholding the rule of law.’”

In a different context, it would be tempting to read those quotes as a repudiation of Trump’s politicization of the Justice Department and its treatment of him -- an effort that often involves conspiracy theories based on little evidence.

In the context of Rosenstein’s letter and his recent actions, though, it appears he believes the ultimate decisions he and Barr made to clear Trump and preview the Mueller report were the result of them resisting political pressure from Trump’s opponents.

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