These strong words of warning were defiantly spoken last Tuesday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at the Freedom Forum Institute. Rosenstein is a Republican, appointed to his position by President Trump. But his oath to uphold the rule of law is obviously preeminent.
Rosenstein was responding to questions about recent threats by U.S. House Republicans to impeach him if he doesn’t hand over classified documents they demanded. These documents are key to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Justice Department policy requires that such documents remain confidential so as not to compromise the Department’s investigative process.
These policies are the bulwark of “the rule of law.” We hear this phrase frequently — but what does it really entail? First and foremost, it means we are a nation of laws, starting with the Constitution. All individuals and entities within the jurisdiction of the United States are subject to these laws, including all officials of the government, members of Congress and the president.
The rule of law includes recognition of the separation of powers with a judicial branch independent from the executive and legislative branches and law enforcement by the Justice Department that is not influenced by the executive branch. Rosenstein’s recent speeches indicate he fears that the Justice Department’s independence is being threatened. After all, if the president can dictate which cases the Justice Department pursues and who the FBI investigates the nation becomes more like a dictatorship.
Chief among the documents requested by House Republicans is an August 2017 memo defining the scope of Mueller’s authority to investigate collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign. Spearheading the efforts to get these documents is House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close confidant of Trump. Members of the FBI and the Justice Department have come to believe that Meadows intends to share these documents with Trump, a primary subject of the investigation. This would result in an obstruction of justice and a violation of the separation of powers.
But let’s get back to the oath. Not many employees have this requirement for their job — to swear to protect and defend the Constitution. The president and members of Congress certainly take that oath, as do employees of the Justice Department. I took a similar oath to be admitted to the practice of law. Lawyers who violate that oath, or the ethical rules that state bar associations enforce, can lose their license to practice – and frequently do. Politicians who violate their oath rarely suffer the consequences.
Certainly, Rosenstein has chosen to put defending the Constitution above his Republican Party affiliation. Unfortunately, many other members of the GOP are more concerned about protecting Trump and their Party than violating their oath.
A prime example is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who appeared last Wednesday on Fox News with Sean Hannity. As a former U.S. Attorney and friend of numerous FBI agents, he knows that the search warrants executed on Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen were authorized by a judge and carried out in an orderly manner. Yet he described federal agents as “Stormtroopers” “breaking down” Cohen’s apartment and office like they were the Nazi Gestapo. It was a disgraceful display of putting partisanship over truth and integrity.
Like Giuliani, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is another one of many Republican oath-takers who are putting party above the Constitution. He was responsible for conducting an investigation of Russian interference in the election. Historically, his committee has been a bipartisan body focused on seeking the truth for the public. Nunes, who worked on the Trump transition team, turned it into a partisan donnybrook bent on exculpating Trump and vilifying Mueller. He subverted a basic tenet of the rule of law, separation of powers.
Worst of all, of course, is President Donald J. Trump. He not only took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, he is charged with the responsibility of faithfully executing the laws of this country. To a great extent, the rule of law is in his hands. Yet he weakens it in numerous ways, like stating he will do what he wants with the Justice Department and suggesting the FBI should be investigating his political opponents. Like former President Richard Nixon, Trump sees the law as an instrument of power, not justice.
Make no mistake, what makes America great, strong and prosperous is the rule of law. That’s why the United States became a superpower and why it ascended to the leadership of the free world. It’s why foreigners have confidence in U.S. Treasury bonds when the financial markets get rough and why immigrant entrepreneurs have flocked to our shores.
For defending the rule of law, Rod Rosenstein may lose his job. At the same time, Trump and his Republican enablers are weakening it with attacks on the press, the judiciary and the Justice Department. Trump and his family brazenly use his presidency to enrich themselves. And his cabinet members treat the U.S. Treasury as their personal bank account.
If the precedents Trump and his administration are setting take root, this nation will have abandoned President Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shinning city on a hill.” In fact, under Trump, its shine is already beginning to dull and its place on the hill is slipping.