“It is curious — curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”
— Mark Twain
I met Rod Rosenstein one time, back in 2008, when I asked if I could interview him in his role as Maryland's U.S. attorney. I was a recently retired local prosecutor writing a little blog with a limited audience. But he agreed and gave me all the time I wanted to ask questions.
I told Mr. Rosenstein what I thought: that despite the eagerness of local officials to claim credit for Baltimore's dramatic decrease in homicides, he deserved the credit for focusing federal efforts on violent and gun-wielding criminals. Mr. Rosenstein demurred. He talked only about the initiatives he presided over and praised the cooperation of his local law enforcement partners. His display of utter professionalism left a deep imprint upon me.
So I was surprised to read last year that he had taken the job of deputy attorney general. To me, Donald Trump's lawlessness was so apparent before the election that I wondered how any person of integrity could work for him. But I decided that Mr. Rosenstein, like many others, thought Mr. Trump was more bluster than danger, and that as a career federal attorney the post of deputy attorney general for the entire United States represented the pinnacle of his career. He probably also thought he could do tremendous good from there.
Almost immediately, Mr. Rosenstein found himself skewered with liberal contempt for writing a memo used by Mr. Trump as a pretext for firing FBI director James Comey. Again, I have no knowledge of Mr. Rosenstein's motivations or whether he knew how the memo would be used. But Mr. Rosenstein was exactly right in what he wrote that Mr. Comey had on more than one occasion acted improperly in his FBI role, beginning with his scathing public criticism of Hillary Clinton when he declined to recommend charges against her. If Mr. Rosenstein’s boss had asked him to write his opinion of Mr. Comey's actions, there would be no reason for Mr. Rosenstein to refuse. Most importantly, what he wrote was correct. He didn't lie to serve a corrupt master.
So while many in the liberal community distrusted Mr. Rosenstein, I felt confident that he, now in charge of the Russia investigation, would do the right thing. I felt a thrill when he appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel (and read Mr. Mueller's simple but profound response: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability”). Mr. Rosenstein courageously picked the one person everyone agreed would be non-political, who would follow the evidence and the law wherever they led him — whether liberals or conservatives liked the results or not. Only as evidence seemingly mounted against Mr. Trump did the president and his stooges mount their campaign to discredit Messrs. Mueller and Rosenstein, to the point of labeling them mob bosses. (These are the actions of morally degraded persons who care nothing for what made American great: the dedication to the rule of law established by a constitutional and democratic process.)
For the entire length of his service as deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein has performed his duties with a figurative guillotine over his head. Yet he has consistently maintained in the face of Trumpian pressure that there is no cause to fire Mr. Mueller. He had to know he would trigger the descent of that guillotine by referring to federal prosecutors in New York an investigation into Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. But Mr. Rosenstein acted anyway, in stark contrast to all the toadies who have groveled and dissembled or actively subverted justice.
Worse than potential loss of his job has got to be the endurance of all the barbs, lies and despicable characterizations. That is probably why moral courage is harder to come by. Physical courage contains no ambiguity. One runs into the fire, or falls on the grenade, and everyone agrees about courage. But those who whistleblow or defy unethical bosses or speak truth to power are objects of suspicion at best and public humiliation and loss of livelihood (or, in some countries, life) at the other end. Yet they act anyway.
Mr. Rosenstein makes me proud that I chose prosecution as my career. The discipline it takes to stick to evidence, obey the rules and ignore politics is nurtured in that profession, and he is a shining example of an ethical public servant — a champion of the rule of law unsullied by politics.
Page Croyder is a retired Baltimore prosecutor; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.