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Rosenstein has one chance to save himself

DANA MILBANK Published: May 16, 2017 4:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Rod Rosenstein: Save yourself.

For years, the man who just became the No. 2 official in the Justice Department painstakingly built a reputation as a gifted prosecutor and an above-the-fray lawman, serving Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

Now, just over two weeks into his new job, he has become a national joke.

He has destroyed his credibility by giving cover and legitimacy to Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, the man overseeing the agency's probe of the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia in tilting the 2016 election Trump's way.

The Washington Post reported that Rosenstein threatened to resign because the White House was turning him into a stooge. Others matched the Post report. But Rosenstein says he made no such threat.

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So he therefore must be content in the work environment he just joined, including these events from last week:

-- The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, hiding among the bushes on the White House north lawn and demanding that journalists turn off their camera lights before he would speak to them about the Comey affair.

-- The White House offering a profusion of conflicting accounts about Comey's dismissal, culminating in Trump contradicting his own aides by saying he would have fired Comey even if Rosenstein hadn't written that preposterous memo.

--The White House blocking American reporters and photographers from covering Trump's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov but admitting a photographer from the Russian state news agency Tass.

--The very same president registering the approval of just 36 percent of the country in a new Quinnipiac University poll. When Americans were asked to volunteer a word that comes to mind when they think of Trump, the top answer was "idiot."

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But the most surreal happening of the week was none of the above. It was The Wall Street Journal's report that Rosenstein "pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to correct what he felt was an inaccurate White House depiction of the events surrounding FBI Director James Comey's firing." The Journal reported that "Rosenstein left the impression that he couldn't work in an environment where facts weren't accurately reported."

Rosenstein is either the most naive man in town, or he's not the honest man we all thought him to be. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's an ingenue who was chewed up and spit out by the Trump White House, which commandeered his unsullied reputation to justify its Comey sacking.

In that case, Rosenstein needs to wake up to the reality that he has been --- and continues to be --- used by Trump and his defenders to provide a veneer of legitimacy to his decision to eliminate the head of the Russia probe.

Trump may now say he would have fired Comey anyway, but everybody else has used Rosenstein, and his three-page memo justifying Comey's dismissal, as cover.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.: "Mr. Rosenstein recommended Mr. Comey's removal."

Spicer: "It was all him. ... No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision."

Rosenstein now makes Comey look like Solomon. If he cares at all about rehabilitating the reputation he built, Rosenstein has one option: He can appoint a serious, independent and above-reproach special counsel -- the sort of person Rosenstein was seen as, until this week --- to continue the Russia probe.

Rosenstein may never recover his honor. But this is his only chance.


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