Is this a smoke signal to Robert Mueller, or a smoke signal from the special counsel? Departing deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that history would prove that Donald Trump “will deserve credit” for the people he appointed to the run the Department of Justice, which certainly caught the ear of the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotsky. What came next set off sirens over the eventual report coming from the Russia-collusion probe:
If you are expecting Mueller/DOJ to willingly release a report that blasts Trump or other, un-indicted people in his orbit, please read these remarks today from Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and supervised most of his investigation. The bold emphasis is mine. pic.twitter.com/cvd5yLQ1Qc
— Matt Zapotosky (@mattzap) February 25, 2019
One could have sussed out an ironic meaning in the first statement — Donald Trump deserves credit for appointing his own political/legal hangman — but the second part of the statement makes the thrust sound more literal. Here’s the money quote about the dangers of too much government transparency, in case the tweet doesn’t display for all readers. Emphases Zapotsky’s:
Just because government collects information doesn’t mean that information is accurate, and it can be really misleading if you’re overly transparent about information that the government collects, so I think we do need to be really cautious about that. And that’s again not to comment on any particular case. There may be legitimate reasons for making exceptions but as a general principle, my view is the Department of Justice is best served when people are confident that we’re going to operate — when we’re investigating American citizens in particular — we’re going to do it with appropriate sensitivity to the rights of uncharged people. … The guidance I always gave my prosecutors and the agents that I worked with during my tenure on the front lines of law enforcement were if we aren’t prepared to move our case beyond a reasonable doubt in court, then we have no business making allegations against American citizens.
Hmmmm. That certainly sounds like the man who delivered the predicate for firing James Comey as FBI director in May 2017. Rosenstein wrote the memo Trump used to fire Comey over his indiscretions in the Hillary Clinton investigation, making statements that infuriated Democrats at the time, and for which they still blame Comey for Clinton’s loss. Trump may have fired Comey for other reasons — Trump himself has suggested it had more to do with Comey’s refusal to publicly state that he wasn’t a target of the FBI’s probes — but Rosenstein was clear that Trump had plenty of grounds on which to fire Comey anyway. This reiteration of Rosenstein’s administrative values sounds like a big signal on the obstruction probe, at the very least.
As Zapotsky notes, it doesn’t sound much like a man who’s expecting to see bad news delivered to his new boss, Attorney General William Barr. Rosenstein seems to be shaping the political battlefield for a nothingburger report and a lot of closed lips on whatever chatter Mueller and his team managed to collect. In essence, Rosenstein is telling CSIS that the official DoJ policy was, is, and should be “put up or shut up.” And since the special counsel operates within DoJ regulations and procedures, Rosenstein would have the ability to tell Mueller the same thing — although Mueller would likely not have to be instructed as such.
This also lets Barr off the hook. Rosenstein strongly suggesting that these are the standards he would impose if he remained in charge. That makes it tougher to blame Barr if he operates in the same manner. Did Rosenstein deliberately choose to make that public case for Barr before his own departure in mid-March? That certainly would be doing a solid for Barr, whose motives and integrity have been under attack by Democrats since the day he accepted the appointment from Donald Trump.
It’s worth repeating that we don’t know that Mueller hasn’t found anything chargeable on Trump or anyone else who hasn’t already been indicted. But if we don’t see any more indictments, it sounds as though we’re not going to see much more in a report either.