If not quite a titter, there was certainly a rustle in the crowd at the Greater Baltimore Committee's annual dinner Monday night when the group's president and CEO, Don Fry, announced that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein would be the recipient of this year's Howard "Pete" Rawlings Courage in Public Service Award. This, after all, is the man who last week wrote the memo that the Trump administration initially used to justify the firing of FBI director James Comey, until President Donald Trump acknowledged that the memo was window dressing for his desire to oust the person who kept the "Russia thing" in the news.
But whether Mr. Rosenstein will ultimately deserve to be lauded for his courage — and for the record, he insisted that he does not as yet — give him points for guts. He stood in front of a crowd of 1,000 people and made a few funny but appropriate jokes about the irony of the situation and altogether reminded those assembled that he is the same guy who enjoyed near universal support and admiration from the powers that be in Maryland — which means, almost entirely, Democrats — for the past 13 years that he served as the state's U.S. attorney. You don't get appointed to a coveted post by President George W. Bush on the recommendation of Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski and keep it through the entire Obama administration if you're not a) pretty good at your job, b) trustworthy and c) skilled at playing nicely with others.
That last part was particularly important to his success as U.S. attorney. Mr. Rosenstein was known for working in close cooperation with local and state law enforcement and political officials (again, basically all Democrats) on efforts to reduce violent crime. He spoke Monday night of one of his last acts in office here, which was to announce the indictment of a man in the killing of McKenzie Elliott, a 4-year-old girl who was fatally shot in the crossfire of drug violence in the Waverly neighborhood. Of all of the thousands of killings that took place during his time working in the city, that one registered as an open wound in the community — a symbol both of the inability of police and prosecutors to bring murderers to justice and the fear or unwillingness of many in the community to come forward as witnesses.
"They named a street for her," Mr. Rosenstein said before urging the crowd to have the "courage" to support the vast majority of Baltimore police officers who are honorable men and women trying to ensure that all the city's children can grow up in safety.
This is not a morally bankrupt political hack. This is someone who cared about the work here in Baltimore, and we don't imagine he took the position as Attorney General Jeff Sessions' No. 2 with the intention of doing that job any differently. Yet events have quickly conspired to put that to the test.
Mr. Rosenstein said he's gotten a lot of unsolicited advice recently on how to preserve his reputation, including a good bit on the opinion pages of this and many other newspapers. He is keeping his own counsel. "On my 10th day of my new job in Washington, D.C., a friend sent me a text message. It said, 'You need to get out of there,'" Mr. Rosenstein quipped. "And I was reminded of a quotation by Thomas Paine at the founding of the republic. He wrote, 'The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country,' and I responded to my friend and I wrote, 'There is no place I would rather be.'"
He went on to note that he took an oath to defend the Constitution, not his reputation. Fair enough. The protection of Mr. Rosenstein's reputation means little to him and much less to the 330 million people he serves. What does matter is that our system of checks and balances is stronger than any one man, that the rule of law will be maintained and that we have confidence that our elected and appointed leaders will, in times of crisis, put the good of the country ahead of personal and partisan interests.
That is why Mr. Rosenstein must appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian hacking in the lead-up to the election. It's not about preserving his reputation or erasing the public's memory of whatever role he played in Mr. Comey's firing. It is about maintaining the public's faith in the Constitution. Mr. Rosenstein said that we would be a lot better off if more people in Washington worried about the Constitution more than their own reputations. He needs to put that observation into action.