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 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. 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 he, like many others, thought 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 Rosenstein found himself skewered with liberal contempt for writing a memo used by Trump as a pretext for firing FBI director James Comey. Again, I have no knowledge of Rosenstein's motivations or whether he knew how the memo would be used. But I read his memo, and Rosenstein was exactly right in what he wrote: 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 his boss had asked him to write his opinion of Comey's actions, there would be no reason for 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 Rosenstein, I felt confident that he, now in charge of the Russian investigation, would do the right thing. I felt a thrill when he appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel (and read Mueller's simple but profound response: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”) Rosenstein brilliantly 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 Trump did he and his stooges mount their campaign to discredit Mueller and Rosenstein, to the point of labeling them mob bosses. (There are no suitable words I can think of to describe this conduct. They are the actions of morally degraded persons who care nothing for what made American great, the dedication to the rule of law etablished by a constitutional and democratic process.)
For the entire length of his service as deputy attorney general 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 Mueller. And he had to know he would trigger the descent of that guillotine by referring an investigation into Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to federal prosecutors in New York. Unlike some, who transition back and forth from public service to private law firms, Rosenstein has spent his entire career as a federal attorney, and loss of his job will sting him more than most. He may also be saying goodbye to a federal judgeship, if he wanted that. But Rosenstein has acted courageously anyway, in stark contrast to all the toadies who have groveled and dissembled or actively subverted justice. (Devin Nunes is our modern Joe McCarthy -- or McCarthy junior, after Trump.)
Worse than potential loss of 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 other countries, life) at the other end. Yet they act anyway.
Rosenstein would probably demur again at the credit I am giving him, like Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she was fired by Trump for telling him the unpleasant truth about his national security advisor Michael Flynn. ("I was just doing my job.") Doing one's job is very difficult when it means crossing a power greater than oneself.
Rosenstein, Mueller and Yates make me proud that I chose prosecution as my career. The discipline it takes to stick to evidence, obey the rules, and ignore politics is nutured in that profession, and they are shining examples of ethical public servants, champions of the rule of law and unsullied by politics.
Here's to you, Rod.