Dear Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein:
It’s rare that any single person has to bear as much responsibility for safeguarding American democracy as you find yourself carrying now. Even before President Trump’s shocking decision on Tuesday to fire the F.B.I. director, James Comey, a dark cloud of suspicion surrounded this president, and the very integrity of the electoral process that put him in office. At this fraught moment you find yourself, improbably, to be the person with the most authority to dispel that cloud and restore Americans’ confidence in their government. We sympathize; that’s a lot of pressure.
Given the sterling reputation you brought into this post — including a 27-year career in the Justice Department under five administrations, and the distinction of being the longest-serving United States attorney in history — you no doubt feel a particular anguish, and obligation to act. As the author of the memo that the president cited in firing Mr. Comey, you are now deeply implicated in that decision.
It was a solid brief; Mr. Comey’s misjudgments in his handling of the F.B.I. investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server were indeed serious. Yet you must know that these fair criticisms were mere pretext for Mr. Trump, who dumped Mr. Comey just as he was seeking more resources to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
You must also know that in ordering you to write the memo, Mr. Trump exploited the integrity you have earned over nearly three decades in public service, spending down your credibility as selfishly as he has spent other people’s money throughout his business career. We can only hope that your lack of an explicit recommendation to fire Mr. Comey reflects your own refusal to go as far as the president wanted you to.Continue reading the main story
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In any case, the memo is yours, and that has compromised your ability to oversee any investigations into Russian meddling. But after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from these matters, because of his own contacts during the campaign with the Russians, the power to launch a truly credible investigation has fallen to you, and you alone.
You have one choice: Appoint a special counsel who is independent of both the department and the White House. No one else would have the standing to assure the public it is getting the truth. While a handful of Republican senators and representatives expressed concern at Mr. Comey’s firing, there is as yet no sign that the congressional investigations into Russian interference will be properly staffed or competently run. And Americans can have little faith that the Justice Department, or an F.B.I. run by Mr. Trump’s handpicked replacement, will get to the bottom of whether and how Russia helped steal the presidency for Mr. Trump.
In theory, no one should have a greater interest in a credible investigation than the president, who has repeatedly insisted the suspicions about his campaign are baseless. Yet rather than try to douse suspicions, he has shown he is more than willing to inflame them by impeding efforts to get to the truth.
Given your own reputation for probity, you must be troubled as well by the broader pattern of this president’s behavior, including his contempt for ethical standards of past presidents. He has mixed his business interests with his public responsibilities. He has boasted that conflict-of-interest laws do not apply to him as president. And from the moment he took office, Mr. Trump has shown a despot’s willingness to invent his own version of the truth and to weaponize the federal government to confirm that version, to serve his ego and to pursue vendettas large and small.
When Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, for instance, he created a Voter Fraud Task Force to back up his claim that the margin resulted from noncitizens voting illegally (the task force has done nothing to date). When there was no evidence for his claim that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, Mr. Trump demanded that members of Congress put their work aside in order to dig up “facts” to support it.
Firing Mr. Comey — who, in addition to leading the Russia investigation, infuriated Mr. Trump by refusing to give any credence to his wiretapping accusation — is only the latest and most stunning example. The White House can’t even get its own story straight about why Mr. Trump took this extraordinary step.
Few public servants have found themselves with a choice as weighty as yours, between following their conscience and obeying a leader trying to evade scrutiny — Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, who behaved nobly in Watergate, come to mind. You can add your name to this short, heroic list. Yes, it might cost you your job. But it would save your honor, and so much more besides.