The Rod Rosenstein resignation letter is a muddle — like his tenure

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein finally resigned. His resignation letter is aimless, confusing, and longer than you would expect — much like his his two-plus years in the post.

Who is Rod Rosenstein? He’s the guy who wrote the memo that Trump used as a pretense to fire FBI directory James Comey. He’s the official that “supervised” the Mueller investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. And he’s the one who looked like a hostage standing behind the new attorney general William Barr as Barr narrated a bland and defensive summary of the Special Counsel’s report.

And, I presume, he did some actual Justice Department work in there somewhere, but no one ever talks about that.

Trump loyalists wonder why he didn’t fire or neuter Mueller. Trump antagonists probably think he should have been more aggressive. He kept the Special Counsel’s investigation alive, but had little to say about it. This confused partisans on all sides.

His resignation is as ambiguous as his tenure

Most resignation letters are short and to the point (“I’m leaving effective next week.”) Why get into controversy on the way out the door? Rosenstein’s letter is much longer, but clears up nothing. Here it is. I highlight the weasel words and add commentary:

April 29, 2019

Dear Mr. President:

The Department of Justice made rapid progress in achieving the Administration’s law enforcement priorities — reducing violent crime, curtailing opioid abuse, protecting consumers, improving immigration enforcement, and building confidence in the police — while preserving national security and strengthening federal efforts in other areas. We staffed the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices with skilled and principled leaders devoted to the values that make America great. By consulting stakeholders, implementing constructive policies, reducing bureaucracy, and using results-driven management, we maximized the public benefit of our $28 billion budget. Productivity rose, and crime fell.

Commentary: I have so many questions.

Why is this addressed to the President, rather than his immediate superior, the Attorney General?

Why is the resignation itself not the first thing here? Why bury the lede?

Why start a resignation letter with a self-serving recitation of accomplishments?

Why should we believe this vague set of platitudes? There is no proof. The only number is the budget, which is the one statistics that Rosenstein is not responsible for.

Most importantly, who is the audience for this letter?Trump frequently criticized Rosenstein and had no use for him. I doubt that anyone who will attempt to hire Rosenstein in the future, in or out of government, cares about this self-serving claptrap. It’s not going to make Democrats, Republicans, or law enforcement people any happier. Why bother?

Our nation is safer, our elections are more secure, and our citizens are better informed about covert foreign influence efforts and schemes to commit fraud, steal intellectual property, and launch cyberattacks. We also pursued illegal leaks, investigated credible allegations of employee misconduct, and accommodated congressional oversight without compromising law enforcement interests. I commend our 115,000 employees for their accomplishments and their devotion to duty. As Thomas Paine wrote, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”

Commentary: A laundry list. And it’s not credible. Are our elections actually more secure? What makes you believe that? Are our citizens actually better informed? Why is our nation safer?

The word “fatigues” may be a code for how Rosenstein feels attempting to do his job for two years of the Trump Administration and the Sessions Justice Department, with an ex-FBI head who hardly said a word as his main concern.

The median tenure of a Deputy Attorney General is 16 months, and few serve longer than two years. As I submit my resignation effective on May 11, 1 am grateful to you for the opportunity to serve; for the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations; and for the goals you set in your inaugural address: patriotism, unity, safety, education, and prosperity, because “a nation exists to serve its citizens.” The Department of Justice pursues those goals while operating in accordance with the rule of law. The rule of law is the foundation of America. It secures our freedom, allows our citizens to flourish, and enables our nation to serve as a model of liberty and justice for all.

Commentary: Here, halfway through the letter and two sentences into the paragraph, we get the actual resignation. By this point Trump (and nearly everyone else) has stopped reading.

Why bother sharing information about the median tenure of Deputy Attorneys General? Are we feeling guilty about leaving and a need to justify ourselves?

And why include the personal and friendly statements about Trump while lecturing about the rule of law? The fact that the Department of Justice follows the rule of law is Civics 101. The more you shout about it, the more we doubt it.

At the Department of Justice, we stand watch over what Attorney General Robert Jackson called “the inner ramparts of our society — the Constitution, its guarantees, our freedoms and the supremacy of law.” As a result, the Department bears a special responsibility to avoid partisanship. Political considerations may influence policy choices, but neutral principles must drive decisions about individual cases. In 1940, Jackson explained that government lawyers “must at times risk ourselves and our records to defend our legal processes from discredit, and to maintain a dispassionate, disinterested, and impartial enforcement of the law.” 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.” 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.”

We enforce the law without fear or favor because credible evidence is not partisan, and truth is not determined by opinion polls. We ignore fleeting distractions and focus our attention on the things that matter, because a republic that endures is not governed by the news cycle.

Commentary: I would very much like to believe what Rosenstein says here. But this is a cry for help.

It appears that Jeff Sessions attempted to follow these principles, and that is why he is no longer Attorney General.

The current Attorney General has behaved more like Trump’s defense lawyer. This is completely at odds with Rosenstein’s statements here.

So who is this letter addressed to? Do you think it will shame or inspire anyone into behaving differently? Is Rosenstein that naive?

We keep the faith, we follow the rules, and we always put America first.


Rod J. Rosenstein

Commentary: America First is a Trump slogan. And who signs their resignation letter with “we follow the rules” unless they feel history is judging everyone around them for not following the rules? Regardless of how you feel about the accusations in the Mueller report, whether they are criminal or not, they certainly do not show an administration “following the rules.”

In my ideal view of American government — which still exists in my mind, no matter how much it is under assault — there are officials like the ones that Rod Rosenstein describes. They have warm relationships with the senior members of government and they are straight arrows, following the evidence and the rules no matter where they lead.

This letter comes after years of Trump’s repeated and withering criticism of the Special Counsel’s investigation, the Justice Department, and the FBI for bias (Witch Hunt? 18 angry Democrats? Ring a bell, anyone?). The letter appears to emerge from a dream world in which everyone treats everyone with respect.

Was there a secretly respectful attitude in the Trump Administration that only Rosenstein could see? Is he writing about a fantasy that he hopes will exist? Is this a coded message, a call for help? Or is is just confused and confusing, like everything in Rod Rosenstein’s world of the last two years?

I don’t know. Six-hundred and sixty words later, I can’t tell. It’s a muddle. If you can explain it, I’m all ears.

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  1. Translation: “Please don’t try to deny me my pension, as you denied a pension to FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.”

  2. I’m as confused as you, Josh. The one thing I took away from it: Rosenstein is trying to have it both ways — to toady up to Trump and to passively chastise him. And he does neither well.

    James Comey once said that Rosenstein is a survivor, and he didn’t mean it in a complimentary fashion. You’re absolutely right in your assessment that his letter perfectly encapsulates his tenure. At the end of it, we’re left with more questions than answers, and he masks any true intentions with meaningless platitudes.