Rosenstein Pushes Back: 'Patriots Should Always Defend the Rule of Law'

Susan Jones | June 6, 2018 | 7:05am EDT
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Deputy Attorney General indirectly defended both himself and federal prosecutors in general in a speech on Tuesday. (File Photo/Screen capture/C-SPAN)

( - "The rule of law is our most important principle," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said on Tuesday. "Patriots should always defend the rule of law, even when it is not in their immediate self-interest."

Although he used historical figures to make his point, it's clear that Rosenstein was indirectly defending himself, federal prosecutors in general, and the ongoing Special Counsel investigation, which is assailed almost daily by President Trump.

In his speech to alumni at the Philadelphia high school attended by his father and grandfather, Rosenstein talked about the rule of law, the Constitution, the role of federal prosecutors (whom he described as patriots), and the importance of "truth," "facts," and justice.

Rosenstein said his own interest in public service began when he interned at a United States Attorney's office during law school:

"The federal prosecutors and agents who worked there demonstrated great intellect and tremendous integrity. They took pride in their duty to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I wanted to work with patriots like them," Rosenstein said.

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, much to President Trump's disgust, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein made the decision to appoint Special Counsel Robert Mueller to take over the FBI's investigation.

Rosenstein has been heartily criticized, among other things, for giving Mueller a broad mandate without specifying what alleged crime sparked the need for a special counsel to begin with.

President Trump repeatedly has bashed Mueller’s “never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others),” as Trump described it two days ago.

But in his speech on Tuesday, Rosenstein said presidential appointees like him "bear unique responsibilities," including nonpartisanship:

We are accountable for pursuing the President’s priorities, and we are obligated to do so while complying with laws, regulations, and ethical principles that prohibit us from taking partisan political considerations into account when deciding what to do in individual cases. If we consider partisan factors, then judges can dismiss our cases, revoke our law licenses, and order us to reimburse the defendant.

The need to prove our claims in court imposes a powerful discipline on prosecutors. When we file a criminal allegation, the defendant is presumed innocent. We need to introduce sufficient credible evidence to satisfy a judge and prove our case beyond any reasonable doubt to the unanimous satisfaction of a jury of 12 random citizens.

The government must disclose any exculpatory evidence, and the defendant may cross-examine our witnesses and offer his own evidence. Even if the defendant remains silent, the court presumes him innocent. If any single juror is not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant goes free.

Sometimes people look at our high conviction rates and mistakenly assume that the job is easy. But the opposite is true. Conviction rates are high because federal prosecutors exercise great care before we accuse anyone of wrongdoing. The scrutiny makes us appropriately cautious.

Rosenstein said the term "rule of law" describes the obligation to "follow neutral principles."

"The rule of law depends on the character of the people responsible for enforcing the law," he said, and it applies equally to everyone, "without regard to rank or status."

(President Trump, a man of  the highest rank, recently tweeted that he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself, although he insists he’s done nothing wrong. Trump also declared the appointment of the special prosecutor was “totally unconstitutional.” And the president is now calling the special counsel's “witch hunt” “spy-gate,” questioning why FBI informants did not share their concerns about certain campaign aides directly with him.)

While "corruption undermines law," the Constitution was designed to protect it, "and we are all keepers of the republic," Rosenstein continued:

Attorney General John Ashcroft liked to point out that our Department is named for a moral value. We aspire to live up to it.

Our goal is to instill a culture of ethical conduct from the first day employees take the oath of office – an oath to support and defend the Constitution, to bear true faith and allegiance, and to well and faithfully execute the duties of the office. Our employees learn that their job is to seek the truth, apply the law, follow the Department’s policies and respect its principles.

The rule of law is our most important principle. Patriots should always defend the rule of law, even when it is not in their immediate self-interest.

Rosenstein used the 1770 Boston Massacre as an example of applying the rule of law to an unpopular cause. "Most lawyers were unwilling to represent the suspects," but future President John Adams -- who preferred "personal integrity over public acclaim" -- "stepped into the breach."

"Adams endured harsh criticism in the court of public opinion," said Rosenstein, who seemed to be talking about himself:

For lawyers like Adams, truth is about solid evidence, not strong opinions. A 19th century Philadelphia doctor named Caspar Morris remarked that “sincerity of belief is not the test of truth.” Many people believe things that are just not true. If you drink deadly poison because you sincerely believe it is harmless, the truth will always defeat your opinion.

So people who seek the truth need to avoid confirmation bias and remain open to the possibility that the truth may not match their preconceptions.

Rosenstein quoted Adams as saying that "facts are stubborn things."

"Adams weathered considerable abuse for defending the rule of law, from people who thought they knew better. He risked a reputation that he had worked hard to earn, and he incurred ‘clamour and popular suspicions and prejudices’ that he feared would never be forgotten. Years later, Adams wrote that his decision 'procured me anxiety, and obloquy...It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.’”

Rosenstein also invoked Abraham Lincoln's support for the rule of law; and he talked about former Attorney General Robert Jackson, who took office in 1940 and later served as a Supreme Court justice:

"Jackson understood that ‘[f]undamental things in our American way of life depend on … government lawyers.’ He said that ‘lawyers must at times risk ourselves and our records to defend our legal processes from discredit, and to maintain a dispassionate, disinterested, and impartial enforcement of the law.’

“Jackson believed that although political tempers flare from time to time, any ‘temporary passion’ will eventually yield to ‘sober second thought’ about the rule of law. ‘We must have the courage to face any temporary criticism,’ Jackson urged, because ‘the moral authority of our legal process’ depends on the commitment of government lawyers to act impartially."

Rosenstein concluded his speech with a quotation from "a legendary Philadelphian, Rocky Balboa," he of movie fame.

"The remarks of John Adams and Robert Jackson bring to mind a scene from the 2006 sequel, when Rocky tells his son: ‘The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows…. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.’

“That advice applies in boxing, in law, and in life," said Rosenstein -- a man who's been hit hard by President Trump and Trump's defenders.

In April, for example, Trump tweeted: "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!"

And last month, President Trump railed against what he called "A Rigged System." He tweeted that DOJ and FBI officials "don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress. What are they afraid of? Why so much redacting? Why such unequal “justice?” At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!"

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