When he began his job as deputy attorney general two weeks ago, Rod Rosenstein had a sterling reputation as a longtime U.S. Attorney in administrations of both political parties. He was viewed as having the integrity to serve as a bulwark of independence in the Trump government. But two weeks in the Trump administration is an awfully long time. After being used by the White House to provide a pretext for the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Rosenstein has only one choice to save his reputation: appoint a special counsel to lead the investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election.
Let’s start with the obvious. Comey badly mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails in ways that clearly violated longstanding Department of Justice policy. In fact, there is an active Inspector General investigation into Comey’s actions. While there are grounds to criticize aspects of Rosenstein’s memo, he makes reasonable and accurate judgments about the errors Comey made during that episode. But the notion that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump—who at the time both praised Comey’s actions—would now view those same actions as grounds for the extraordinary step of firing the FBI director is unbelievable.
Even though Rosenstein never explicitly calls for firing Comey, his memo is the central supporting document in the Trump administration’s charade at providing a rationale to fire the man leading the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. We know this because the White House is saying it on the record. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Rosenstein independently began this inquiry (two weeks ago) and that Comey’s firing “was all him.” Vice President Mike Pence said Rosenstein “came to work, sat down and made his recommendation” to fire Comey.
Multiple media outlets are now reporting that the real reason behind the firing of Comey appears to be Trump’s frustration with the Russia investigation. Politico reports that Trump “had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia.” That probe appears to be both closing in on people associated with the Trump campaign and expanding the scope of its investigation. Grand jury subpoenas have been issued to “associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records,” CNN reported Tuesday. NBC reported Wednesday that the “Senate intelligence committee has requested documents on Trump from Treasury’s money laundering unit.” And just last week, Comey asked the Justice Department for “a significant increase in money and personnel” for the Russia investigation, according the New York Times. The DOJ official Comey made that request to was Rosenstein.
Comey had to go to Rosenstein with his request because Sessions had already recused himself from any role in the Russia investigation. As a result, Rosenstein now has the authority to appoint a Special Counsel to run the Russia investigation.
Comey’s actions during the Clinton email investigation could have been grounds for firing him. But the circumstances of his firing bely that rationale. In his memo, Rosenstein wrote of the need to “regain public and congressional trust;” but the firing of Comey and the way Rosenstein is being used by the White House have dramatically shaken the confidence of the American people in the independence of the Department of Justice. There is only one choice to make and Rosenstein has the power to make it: appoint a Special Counsel and do it now.