As an ever-bumbling White House struggled since Tuesday to explain just when, how, and why President Trump decided to fire FBI Director James Comey, a central question has been the role of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. After initial assertions Rosenstein’s May 9 letter was the sole impetus for the firing, Trump declared Thursday the decision was his alone, made long ago, and the Deputy AG’s comments had no bearing.
On Wednesday, even before the President zagged all over his staff’s zigging, the Washington Post reported Rosenstein was irked White House officials blamed him exclusively for the unexpected termination. According to an unnamed source cited by the Post, Rosenstein even threatened to resign.
Interesting, but the salient point is the Deputy AG remains on the job. He did not resign.
And, that’s where the parallels end between President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate scandal and Trump’s highly suspicious move to eliminate the chief law enforcement official investigating possible Russian collusion during his campaign.
On Saturday, October 20, 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus both resigned, rather than carry out corrupt commands of a cornered and desperate President Nixon. The third time was the charm (temporarily), when Nixon persuaded the Justice Department’s next in line – Solicitor General Robert Bork — to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. But, the decisions by Richardson and Ruckelshaus to surrender their posts rather than comply were crucial acts to hasten the unraveling of Nixon’s ties to the Presidency. By August of the following year, Nixon would step down.
Rosenstein, by contrast, reportedly got a little whiny behind closed doors.
And, therein lies our problem. For all the men and women of power who have dared criticize candidate and/or President Trump, such moments have only come with something real or perceived to be gained.
Congressional Democrats have no chance to drain away loyalty among Trump’s base. Even with some Republicans (Rep. Justin Amash, Sen. John McCain, etc.) finally expressing concern with the President’s actions, Trump supporters have long since written off the entire “Russiagate” affair as sour grapes from Hillary Clinton and Democrats in Congress.
As majority party, only the GOP can stand up to the President at this point. Which is scant hope, considering all the paper tigers of the 2016 campaign — electoral foes who bravely roared criticism of an unfit candidate before the nominating convention, but then meekly crawled to the would-be King, eager for any morsel of a cabinet post or West Wing office.
Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley… All made the pivot from criticism to capitulation to either increase or hold onto power. Former GOP candidate Mitt Romney made perhaps the most noise from any Republican of stature, before humiliating himself in the worst way imaginable before a gloating Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan squirmed through his faux tough-guy phase before assuming the role of eager water boy doing the President’s bidding in the House. In that sense, at least the loathsome Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has never wavered from his cravenly political self.
For anything to change, someone with something to lose must be willing to do so in a big way — in the moment. You can’t pass up the chance one day, cross the line, and wander back later when conscience catches up to you. History doesn’t leave a voicemail. Rosenstein’s historic opportunity to reveal character came and went in an instant, with him found sadly lacking. Who’s next? Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and Walter Jones (R – NC) perhaps signaled cause for slim hope by signing on this week to cosponsor House legislation calling for an independent commission to investigate the Trump/Russia allegations. It’s a start, but more crucial moments and critical choices surely lie ahead.
As minority party, Democrats can continue to clamor for an independent investigation of the Trump campaign. The Resistance can call every GOP congressman and Attorney General’s office every day from now until the end of the Trump Presidency. But, at some point, someone with much to lose, in a position to make a difference, is going to have to do so.
One might feel empathy for Rod Rosenstein — caught in the cross hairs of history. But, it’s not like he lacked ample evidence of what he was getting into joining the DOJ last month. Aside from all that’s transpired since Trump’s inauguration, Atlantic Senior Editor and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum gave a frank warning in his January piece: “Advice for Those Weighing Jobs in the Trump Administration.” Indeed, his words are proving prophetic as we speak. Perhaps none more than these:
When friends ask me, ‘Should I accept a job under President Trump?’ it’s not merely a philosophical question. Answer the question wrong, and they may find themselves two or three years later facing a congressional investigation or possibly even a grand jury.
And, already, here we are. The stakes come with the territory. Someone must risk losing that much for America to win back what little hope we have left.
Someone has to channel their inner Meatloaf and sing out loud into the face of an out-of-control President: “I would do anything for (party) love, but I won’t do that.”
Or if you’re of a slightly younger musical generation, the Gin Blossoms will also do. “Anywhere you go, I’ll follow you down. I’ll follow you down, but not that far.”