Choosing republic over reputation

These days, you cannot invoke Abraham Lincoln enough — as a tonic for brains strained or drained by Donald J. Trump — so here goes: "Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing."

The record is not clear on where or when Lincoln said this, but he has been given credit for it widely and, being wise, taut and elegant, it certainly sounds like something the great man could have said. And I appreciate its admonition: Look to the tree, not its shadow. As Thomas Paine — more tonic for the Trump-weary — put it: "Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us."

And so we come to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general in the time of Trump and previously a long-serving U.S. attorney in Maryland. Once hailed for his integrity and independence, Rosenstein has in the last week been dismissed as either a partisan hack or a "useful patsy."

These overheated condemnations came after Rosenstein's memo criticizing James Comey for the former FBI director's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The memo provided a pretext for Comey's firing by Trump. Since the White House released copies of Rosenstein's memo, he has been ripped as either a compliant shill for a reckless president or a naive careerist who allowed his name — his reputation — to be used to justify sacking Comey in the midst of the FBI's investigation of links between Russian hackers and Trump's 2016 campaign.

Monday night, speaking to the annual gathering of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Rosenstein offered his first public comments about the backlash: "Many people have offered me unsolicited advice over the past few days about what I should do to promote my personal reputation. ... I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. There is nothing in that oath about my reputation. If you ask me, one of the main problems in Washington, D.C., is everybody is so busy running around trying to protect their reputation instead of protecting the republic, which is what they're supposed to be doing."

If there's a tell in any of those words, it's in the last passage: A knock against the Washington establishment — too many politicians and government officials unwilling to stick their necks out and stand on principle, too many unwilling to show character.

Rosenstein took a lot of hits for the Comey memo — the timing of it, how it was used — but I've read it three times, and while I can cite some dubious assertions, most of it holds up.

The memo describes clearly the role of the FBI, and it rightly knocks Comey for usurping the attorney general in giving his opinions about Hillary Clinton and her email server. "It is not the function of the [FBI] director" to decide whether someone should be prosecuted, Rosenstein said.

Remember: The man has been a prosecutor; his perspective is built on that particular understanding of how things work: From bank robberies to white-collar fraud, the FBI investigates suspected crimes, and prosecutors decide whether to seek indictments. The public, via the press, might learn of active investigations, but most of the time federal prosecutors neither confirm nor deny their existence. They might do so when it serves them — as in the announcement of rewards for information about crimes — but most of the U.S. attorneys I've known in Baltimore have kept a tight lid on things.

That was particularly true of Rosenstein. While affable and forthcoming about his office's pursuit of drug gangs or its collaborations with Baltimore police, he could not be enticed to make comments on active investigations. He spoke in only general terms about his office's operations. He was long, tall, straight and dry; there was nothing of the politician about him.

And so he earned a reputation as a serious, fair prosecutor and public servant, and, though a registered Republican originally appointed to his post by a Republican president, he never gave away a political leaning. In 2007, former President George W. Bush picked him for a judgeship on the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the nomination withered under the objections of Maryland's two Democratic senators. Still, Rosenstein did not make a fuss. He stayed on as U.S. attorney through the Obama administration. And now this.

I was surprised and disappointed that he took the deputy AG job. I could not imagine Rosenstein working for a president who lies as much as Trump does. But it's possible he took the post because he believed he could serve as a check on regressive policies or abuses of power.

The "Russian thing" marks his first big test. Comey's gone. An independent prosecutor is needed. Rosenstein should appoint one — not for the sake of his reputation, for the sake of the republic.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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