With the stroke of a pen, Rod Rosenstein redeemed his reputation, preserved the justice system, pulled American politics back from the brink – and, just possibly, saved the Republican Party and President Donald Trump from themselves.
The deputy attorney general’s memo Wednesday night announcing that he had appointed Robert Mueller as special prosecutor to investigate the Trump administration’s ties to Russia was pitch perfect in its simple justification: While he has not determined that any crime has been committed, he wrote that “based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
This is precisely what Rosenstein needed to do for all parties, but particularly for his own honor. Rosenstein, just two weeks into the job, had trashed the reputation he had built over the years as a fair-minded and above-the-fray prosecutor by allowing Trump to use him as cover for Trump’s own decision to sack FBI Director James Comey.
Many who admired Rosenstein were stunned that he would let himself be used this way; I argued last week that “if he cares at all about rehabilitating the reputation he built, Rosenstein has one option: He can appoint a serious, independent and above-reproach special counsel – the sort of person Rosenstein was seen as, until this week – to continue the Russia probe.” In tapping Mueller – a solid figure who served ably as FBI director under two presidents – that’s what Rosenstein did.
Rosenstein also restores some confidence in a justice system that has been much abused by Trump’s assaults on “so-called” judges. That system was gravely wounded by Comey’s firing, ordered by Trump and overseen by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was supposed to have recused himself from the Russia probe but decided it was just fine to recommend the firing of the man overseeing that investigation and choose his replacement.
The deputy attorney general’s decision also reduces partisan pressures that were very clearly harming the national interest. Republicans had gone into a crouch to protect against any suggestion that Trump and his advisers colluded with the Russians. Democrats were often leaping to conclude that there was high-level collusion. And nearly everybody had lost track of the most important issue: Russia, arguably our leading global adversary, had successfully meddled in a U.S. presidential election – undermining confidence in our system of government – and was ready to do it again.
In this sense, Rosenstein also did a favor for congressional Republicans. A minority of GOP lawmakers had begun to see the urgency of putting country before party. But, shamefully, GOP leaders had been in denial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was steadfast against an independent prosecutor or commission, and House Speaker Paul Ryan continued to tether himself and his party to Trump.
At a news conference Wednesday morning, Ryan, reading from a typewritten statement, gave what amounted to a generous Trump defense. It was a huge gamble by the top Republican in Congress. Ryan’s defense of Trump is a calculation that Trump will ride out the troubles. He is betting his political fortunes – and perhaps his party’s hold on the House – on a man who has provided very little justification for trust.
Rosenstein’s action rescues Ryan, McConnell and other GOP leaders from their own cowardice in refusing to demand more accountability from Trump.
If past is prologue, Mueller’s investigation will be a huge distraction for the White House as everybody “lawyers up” and attention shifts from what remains of Trump’s agenda to the latest twists and turns that can be discerned.
But Trump’s agenda was already moribund. Just a few months into his presidency, Trump has already amassed a collection of scandals and failures that most presidents take years to acquire. The Mueller appointment, at least, gives the Trump White House a chance to compartmentalize the scandals. And, crucially, it provides one more watchdog keeping Trump’s autocratic instincts from getting the better of him – and the rest of us.
These first months of the Trump administration have tested the strength of America’s democratic institutions. The good news is it appears those institutions are holding. The press has been at its best, uncovering the alarming truths about Trump’s Russia ties. Some brave patriots in intelligence and law enforcement and elsewhere in the federal government have taken risks to get the facts out. A few courageous lawmakers defied their party leaders and president. And now, finally, we see that one of Trump’s high-level appointees had the courage to defy him.
It’s often said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. On Wednesday night, Rod Rosenstein did something.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.