U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the lifelong Republican who was tasked with outlining the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller‘s Russia investigation in place of a recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said a bunch of things from a podium in Montreal on Monday that can easily be read as thinly veiled criticism of President Donald Trump and his associates, even though no names were used.
Rosenstein made general prepared remarks at the International Economic Forum of the Americas Conference in Canada, but it’s almost like he was giving an update on things at home, particularly when he mentions the threat corruption and bribery pose for the rule of law and for a flourishing society.
Criticism 1: This Isn’t a Witch Hunt.
Rosenstein said the mission of the DOJ is to “pursue the goal of maintaining a just and law-abiding society.” This is notable precisely because the DOJ has repeatedly been accused of playing a political game rather than conducting a legitimate investigation of events leading up the result of the 2016 election.
Rosenstein has for months now been in the unenviable position of being a punching bag of sorts for the White House and Congress. In one case, Rosenstein said Republican lawmakers who threatened to draft articles of impeachment against him lacked “courage.”
The president has also made his thoughts clear about Rosenstein and the investigation time and again. For example, Rosenstein was deemed more conflicted than anyone in April:
Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Make no mistake, when Trump supporters or Republican lawmakers called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” they are questioning the judgment and motives of Rosenstein. Mueller has been empowered by him, after all, to leave few stones unturned. Nowhere has this been clearer in the cases of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.
We’ll get to them in a moment.
Criticism 2: Freedom and Prosperity Disappears When Corruption Spreads
Rosenstein said that the rule of law is what keeps a society “free and prosperous,” saying that practices like bribery fundamentally undercut the “stable legal environment” that “allows investors, innovators, and manufacturers to create and deliver the goods and services that sustain us and improve our lives.”
He made his point by way of a short story from a trip:
I visited the nation of Armenia in 1994, when it was transitioning to democracy. I delivered a lecture about laws that prohibit public corruption in the United States. When I finished, a perplexed student raised his hand. He asked, “If you can’t pay bribes in America, then how do you get electricity?”
That pragmatic question illustrated how the young man learned to think about his society. Corruption undermines law. It stifles innovation, creates inefficiency, and inculcates distrust.
President Trump’s longtime personal attorney Cohen and former campaign chairman Manafort are both being investigated for financial fraud and more, while former national security advisor Flynn admitted he lied to the FBI.
There’s no doubt that these facts have “inculcated distrust” among a great number of Americans and contributed to political polarization, and that binary positions on the legitimacy of the Russia Probe have followed.
In Cohen’s case, questions have been raised about meetings he had with big corporations after the election, meeting with them and taking money in exchange for “access” to Trump and his administration. Cohen’s deal with Novartis, a Swiss-based company, placed him in particular jeopardy if it is determined that he violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
There’s also the stayed matter against Cohen in California brought by Michael Avenatti and Stormy Daniels. Cohen has been accused of anything from threatening Daniels to colluding with her ex-attorney Keith Davidson against Daniels’ interests to violating campaign finance law by not reporting the $130,000 paid to Daniels in exchange for silence about a sexual relationship with Trump.
Notably, Manafort and Trump campaign aide Rick Gates are facing FARA violation charges.
Robert Mueller filed a superseding indictment against Manafort in D.C. on Friday, adding charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. That’s a big problem for Manafort because Mueller has already motioned to have Manafort’s pre-trial release conditions revoked or revised. Why? Because Manafort allegedly attempted witness tampering.
Rosenstein said later on his speech that the DOJ takes pride in working with other nations to “detect, deter, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations that pose a threat to our citizens, companies, and nations,” mentioning crimes like money laundering and “tax crimes.”
Manafort faces charges of money laundering, tax fraud, bank fraud conspiracy and failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts. Cohen is also being investigated by the feds for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations. According to the Washington Post, tax returns were also part of materials seized by the FBI.
Incidentally, Trump’s tax returns have also been a subject that has elicited public outcry. That moment of glibness aside, it is notable that Rosenstein saw fit to emphasize that international lawbreakers can’t hide from his DOJ.
Cohen, Manafort, Gates and Flynn aren’t Trump, but they were hired by him.
Criticism 3: the DOJ Isn’t Loyal to Anyone But the Rule of Law
President Trump’s propensity to demand loyalty of those he bosses is a known factor, but Rosenstein wanted to make it clear that this is not what the DOJ is all about.
Lines like the “Department of Justice is not a business” and “People may think that they want the boss to stand behind them and offer support […] but they really need a leader to stand in front of them and take responsibility” jumped out.
Many preface their support for Trump — or at least describe how he is unique to the political sphere — by saying he is a businessman who understands things out-of-touch academics and wonks may not and he will therefore will hire the best people.
Having already demonstrated that this is not necessarily the case, Rosenstein distanced himself and the DOJ from being in the business of being open for business.
“The Department of Justice is not a business, but we confront many issues that are familiar to anyone who works in a large organization,” he said.
In other words, he can understand like Trump does that large organizations have issues that leadership needs to solve, but there is a key difference between how the DOJ and Trump might go about doing that.
It almost sounds like Rosenstein, whose job has been in the balance, might sympathize a little bit with fired FBI Director James Comey — like Rosenstein has “A Higher Loyalty.”
Comey, you may recall, wrote in his book that Trump is “unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values” (maybe like the institutional values of the DOJ?) and is “transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”
Criticism 4: Time to Transcend Politics and Agree There Are Real, Change-Driven Threats
Connected once again to the rhetoric surrounding the Russia investigation are the ideas that Russian interference a) had no real effect on the 2016 election or b) Americans should be thankful that vulnerabilities and DNC dirt was revealed.
Rosenstein suggested that one great danger of modern life is an inability to move beyond petty, partisan politics while facing challenges that affect everyone — like “hostile governments” and their schemes.
“Many of the organizations represented here today are on the cutting-edge in science, technology, research, and development. Unfortunately, that makes you a target for hostile individuals, organizations, and governments,” he said. “They attempt to profit from your ingenuity by infiltrating your computer systems and stealing your intellectual property.”
“Threats to safety and security grow more complex over time. When crimes transcend political boundaries and pose grave threats to privacy, security, and financial stability, we all need to work more closely together to combat the threats,” he added. “Your challenge is to protect your organization from attacks and prepare to respond when they occur.”
How much more challenging does this become when security measures are discredited for political gain?
The most recent glaring example would be the characterization of an FBI “informant” inside the Trump campaign as a “spy” or a Watergate-level offense — an alarmist story even top Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan have shot down.
[Image via SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.