Rod Rosenstein, the top deputy to Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, has been a target of persistent attacks from congressional Republicans over his role in overseeing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
For Marylanders, watching Rod Rosenstein make the long march (well, car ride anyway) to the White House on Thursday for a much-publicized tête-à-tête with the boss will likely seem an oddity on par with an episode of “The Apprentice” with its staged dramatic firings. The notion that Maryland’s former U.S. attorney is some kind of deep-state apparatchik, a Resist Donald Trumper and especially a covert operative hot on wearing a wire is in sharp contrast to the by-the-book guy who spent a dozen years as this state’s longest serving top federal prosecutor.
Here’s what Mr. Rosenstein is — a career prosecutor with a distaste for government corruption, a Republican appointee who prosecuted his share of Democratic elected officials but abstained from playing politics when his targets went to prison or from showboating generally. During his time in Baltimore, he developed a reputation for being principled, nonpartisan and for not keeping reporters on speed dial. One can only assume Attorney General Jeff Sessions chose him to be the No. 2 in the U.S. Department of Justice because he’s a quiet, experienced professional. In government, deputies make the trains run on time. They have to know their stuff.
Those are all good reasons why Mr. Rosenstein shouldn’t be fired. Here’s another that President Trump might find more convincing: Axing the guy in charge of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the last election, which even now appears to be gradually wrapping up its efforts, would represent the kind of direct interference in a prosecution that can ultimately get a president impeached. Remember the Saturday Night Massacre? In 1973, then-President Richard M. Nixon wanted Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, refused and resigned as well. That moment — seen by many Americans as a gross abuse of power — may have been the turning point in the Watergate investigation and President Nixon’s undoing.
Mr. Trump certainly has the authority to fire Mr. Rosenstein — just as Nixon could fire Justice Department employees to his heart’s content. But how will Congress and the public react to a president actually putting the kibosh on those who are investigating wrongdoing in his inner circle and in which he might be implicated? At the very least, it would be seen as an effort to derail Mr. Mueller. It would be seen as Richard Nixon all over again. Now, consider the implications for the midterm elections and the potential for a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. As reluctant as some Democrats may be to use the I-word now, it’s going to be much on the minds of those who don’t believe a president should be held above the law.
Derailing, defanging or otherwise neutering the Mueller investigation now — and dismissing Mr. Rosenstein will be seen as at least one of those things — will leave people wondering: what if? How much more would the former FBI director have uncovered if he’d been allowed to proceed without interference? What other charges would have been filed? Was the president protecting his children? Top aides? Himself? That speculation might prove more ruinous than allowing Mr. Mueller to finish his investigation, especially if Mr. Trump is as innocent as he claims. Innocent presidents don’t shut down special counsels, they welcome their findings in order to prove they are not guilty.
On the other hand, Mr. Trump has reportedly mused that impeachment could be the ticket to his re-election in 2020 if it looks like Democrats over-reached. Well, then, here’s the ultimate Trump-friendly reason to spare Mr. Rosenstein: It’s way better reality TV. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that this meeting is happening on the same day as the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing featuring Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her in high school. Maybe “The Apprentice” was lightly edited to reflect actual events and not amp up the drama. Mr. Trump has the opportunity here to upstage (or at least distract attention from) a hearing that nearly 60 percent of Americans say they will be following closely or very closely, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. If Mr. Trump fires Mr. Rosenstein on the same day, he either overshadows a strong performance by his Supreme Court nominee or amplifies a bad one. Taking the unexpected step of leaving Mr. Rosenstein in office allows him a chance to make his point, demonstrate to his supporters who is in charge (him not some Sessions underling) and distract from the obvious truth that the Senate GOP leadership has no intention whatsoever to let whatever happens on Thursday prevent its rush to a Kavanaugh confirmation vote. Any good reality TV show needs a shocking twist. Here’s Mr. Trump’s chance to provide one.