"It was all him."
— White House spokesman Sean Spicer throwing former Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein under the bus Tuesday night.
Well, that didn't take long. Less than two weeks after being sworn in as the U.S. deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who has long enjoyed bipartisan support as a federal prosecutor, got played by the Trump administration. The president used Mr. Rosenstein's reputation as a respected lawman to whitewash the vindictive firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday — blaming it on Mr. Comey's bungled public statements about the investigation last year into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.
Because, yeah, Donald Trump grew a conscience overnight and realized how very wronged his presidential competitor was (the same woman he called "nasty," "very dumb" and "crooked") and just had to make it right — six months after it helped him win the election. (If he really wanted to do that, he could quit — just sayin'.)
Are we honestly supposed to believe that was the belated last straw and this isn't about Mr. Comey's embarrassing contradiction of Mr. Trump's wiretapping claims, or his pesky determination to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election? It's about Mr. Comey's poor handling of Ms. Clinton, which Mr. Trump previously said "took a lot of guts" and "was the right thing" to do? Really?
Mr. Trump could have canned Mr. Comey any time but knew it would look bad at this particular point without justification, or at least someone on his team did. Enter Mr. Rosenstein and the May 9th smokescreen "memo" he conveniently produced. Entitled Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI, it expresses amazement at Mr. Comey's refusal to acknowledge his past errors regarding Ms. Clinton.
"Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes," Mr. Rosenstein wrote, "it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives." He then goes on to take a half dozen or so legal professionals down the rabbit hole with him, listing similar opinions culled from published op-eds and media interviews. In my business, we call that a "clip job" — something hurriedly slapped together by reviewing news clips because there's no time for original reporting and investigation.
Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under Bush I, apparently didn't appreciate being used in this way; he released a statement the day after Mr. Comey was fired calling the rationale "a sham" even if the assessment was correct. He's right; there's nothing wrong in the memo, which, by the way, stops short at calling for Mr. Comey's termination. There's nothing new in it, either — except for the DOJ position of its author.
Reports claim Mr. Trump got a bee in his bonnet over the weekend, buzz buzz buzzing that now was the time to take down Mr. Comey, who coincidentally had just asked Mr. Rosenstein for more resources to expand the Russia probe. The president met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Mr. Rosenstein on Monday, and by Tuesday, the memo had been produced and the deed done. Mr. Comey was fired, and Mr. Rosenstein was offered up as the scapegoat.
The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson has a wonderful account of the moment the White House publicly turned on its most credible employee. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, standing in the dark between hedges Tuesday night, sputteringly told a dozen reporters that Mr. Rosenstein acted alone to investigate Mr. Comey and recommend his firing. "It was all him," he declared. On Wednesday, another press secretary added that Mr. Trump had long considered terminating Mr. Comey, who had committed "atrocities" in the Clinton investigation (this, apparently, is what an administration that calls Nazi concentration camps "Holocaust Centers" finds atrocious). But she, too, claimed Mr. Rosenstein was the actual impetus. Then Thursday, Mr. Trump weighed in, telling NBC he was going to fire Mr. Comey with or without a recommendation from Mr. Rosenstein.
But the damage had already been done. Mr. Rosenstein is now viewed by some as either a willing shill or a naive patsy, and he will never again be described in apolitical terms. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, called him"an enabler" on Twitter. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said "serious questions have been cast on Mr. Rosenstein's impartiality" and questioned whether he could be trusted to oversee the FBI's Russia investigation. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said Mr. Rosenstein's memo is "simply not credible." And California's Dianne Feinstein said she's now "a bit turned off" by him.
I hate to say I told you so, but, I told you so.
"The [deputy attorney general] job would be carrying water for a chain of outsiders who appear to care little about keeping the country's reputation — or indeed the country — intact." I wrote in February, urging Mr. Rosenstein to turn down the offer and asking whether he really wanted to link his "legacy with theirs."
In his Maryland office, Mr. Rosenstein kept a sign on the wall reading "Don't tell me what I want to hear, just tell me what I need to know."
I hope he's listening now.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is email@example.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.