FILE PHOTO: U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks at a news conference with other law enforcement officials at the Justice Department to...
Yuri Gripas

Trump’s ‘personal conversations’ with Rod Rosenstein raise eyebrows

Updated

Donald Trump’s offensive against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein seemed to reach its peak around Thanksgiving, when the president promoted a Twitter message calling for the imprisonment of his perceived political foes. The tweet included Rosenstein.

I’d assumed Trump would say it was just a joke, but when the New York Post asked the Republican why his own deputy attorney general belongs behind bars, the president replied, “He should have never picked a special counsel.”

Six months later, Robert Mueller’s investigation, which Rosenstein oversaw from his Justice Department perch, is over, and Rosenstein is exiting the stage. He submitted his resignation letter yesterday, and his last day is May 11.

His resignation was expected; he had been saying for a long time that he planned to leave the department once Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, possible collusion by the Trump campaign and potential obstruction of justice by the president was completed.

“I am grateful to you for the opportunity to serve; for the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations; and for the goals you set in your inaugural address: patriotism, unity, safety, education and prosperity,” Rosenstein wrote in his resignation letter.

Apparently indifferent to the political implications, the deputy AG even included an “America first” reference in his letter.

It was an odd message, especially for someone who no longer has any incentive to flatter the fragile ego of the president. At least publicly, Trump has routinely showed Rosenstein disrespect, if not contempt, so praising the president’s “courtesy” struck a dissonant note.

But I was also struck by the reference to the “personal conversations” between Trump and Rosenstein. This comes on the heels of a related Washington Post report about their interactions:

Rod J. Rosenstein, again, was in danger of losing his job. The New York Times had just reported that – in the heated days after James B. Comey was fired as FBI director – the deputy attorney general had suggested wearing a wire to surreptitiously record President Trump. Now Trump, traveling in New York, was on the phone, eager for an explanation.

Rosenstein – who, by one account, had gotten teary-eyed just before the call in a meeting with Trump’s chief of staff – sought to defuse the volatile situation and assure the president he was on his team, according to people familiar with matter. He criticized the Times report, published in late September, and blamed it on former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, whose recollections formed its basis. Then he talked about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and told the president he would make sure Trump was treated fairly, people familiar with the conversation said.

“I give the investigation credibility,” Rosenstein said, according to an administration official with knowledge of what was said during the call. “I can land the plane.”

So let me get this straight. While the president was the subject of a federal investigation, he had multiple conversations with the Justice Department official overseeing the probe – including discussions about the investigation itself?

It reminds me of a point we first kicked around 14 months ago. In June 2016, Bill Clinton had a chat on a tarmac with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and according to everyone involved, it was a fairly brief and inconsequential social interaction.

The political world responded to the meeting with abject horror: because the Justice Department was examining Hillary Clinton’s email server protocols, Americans were told, it was wildly inappropriate for the former president to engage the sitting attorney general in conversation.

After all, according to those who saw the chat as scandalous, Bill Clinton might’ve used the opportunity to pressure a top Justice Department official about an ongoing investigation.

There was no evidence of such pressure, but that didn’t matter. Even the possibility was widely seen as scandalous.

Everyone who took that story seriously, or at least pretended to, should consider why Trump’s chats with Rosenstein are receiving far less attention.