People had been trying to get a reading on deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein ever since he wrote the memo defending Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey. Was he a willing stooge doing the president’s dirty work, or was he a glumly dutiful public servant trying to hold together the shaky rule of law under impossible circumstances? Yesterday, Rosenstein wrote the answer into the record himself, with his resignation letter: whatever he might have been or intended to be, his job was defined by degradation, and he was defined by his job.
The Trump administration has produced volumes of perverse and defective official writing, but Rosenstein’s resignation letter had a distinctive shabbiness to it. It was written in Trump-ese, demonstratively so: “make America great”…”we always put America first.” It spoke in what seemed to be conspiracist cable-news code—presidential code—about pursuing “illegal leaks” and “credible allegations of employee misconduct.” It outright flattered Trump, thanking him for “the courtesy and humor you so often display in our personal conversations,” like Bret Kavanaugh groveling for the cameras when presented for the Supreme Court or like the cabinet officials forced to take turns around the table praising their president.
It strained, in some stretches, for a higher tone of public service:
The rule of law is the foundation of America. It secures our freedom, allows our citizens to flourish, and enables our nation to serve as a model of liberty and justice for all.
But even that came across as a string of dead cliches. By the end, the would-be elevated stuff was visibly decaying into Trump-gabble:
We enforce the law without fear or favor because credible evidence is not partisan, and truth is not determined by opinion polls. We ignore fleeting distractions and focus our attention on the things that matter, because a republic that endures is not governed by the news cycle.
Fake news! Lying polls! The appeal to nonpartisanship, in a letter bookended by the president’s rally slogans, was a feat of shamelessness worthy of Lindsey Graham. And it was in a document written by the second-highest law-enforcement official in the land, to sum up his work.
The myth of anyone being able to do good work for a bad president died long ago, but this was the suicide note beside its rotting corpse. Rosenstein’s letter, like the work of the cable-news hosts and the White House courtiers, had to be addressed to an audience of one. It is a jealous and all-demanding audience. Anyone who chooses to speak to it has turned their back on speaking to—or for—anyone else.