The New York Times editorial board penned an open letter with an intended audience of one: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. I don’t think they did a very good job.
They started out fairly well by acknowledging Rosenstein’s sterling record and lengthy service to the country, although it might not have been helpful to say that his elevation to such an esteemed position was “improbable.” They also acknowledged that his brief against FBI Director James Comey was “solid” and that he hadn’t “explicitly” recommended that Comey be fired.
But they got badly off track when they went into a long indictment, of Trump’s character and misdeeds and business career, that isn’t central to the issue at hand. Perhaps critically, they characterize the investigation into Trump’s campaign as getting to “the bottom of whether and how Russia helped steal the presidency for Mr. Trump.” That’s not a helpful characterization.
For starters, it is not necessary to conclude that the election was “stolen,” and that’s not something that needs to be proven by the FBI or by prosecutors in a court of law. There are three elements that need to be investigated, none of which have to make any determination over whether or not Trump would or could have won without Russian interference and possible cooperation by the Trump campaign.
The first is to determine exactly how the Russians acted: what they did, who did it, who was paid, what technologies were used, who was recruited or compromised, etc.
The second is to determine how to protect ourselves from future actions of a similar nature.
And the third is criminal in nature, and would actually bring charges against any individual who violated statutes on the books.
The point isn’t to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency and “prove” that he “stole” the election, although the editors make a good point when they observe that “In theory, no one should have a greater interest in a credible investigation than the president, who has repeatedly insisted the suspicions about his campaign are baseless.” That the president’s legitimacy is in question is a fact, and if he has nothing to hide he should be the biggest cheerleader for this probe since he would know that in the end it would vindicate him and give his victory a clean bill of health. He isn’t acting that way, though, is he?
By making Rosenstein’s decision process all about the need to prove that Trump is illegitimate, they undermine their case by making this seem like a demand for a process that is intended to wound and discredit Trump, rather than a necessary process to protect our election process and the integrity and reputation of our system of government.
There’s a more immediate and serious need, too, which is that we have to know who, if anyone, is now in a position of authority who may be subject to blackmail because they played a role in helping the Russians steal documents or target voters or strategize over how to use their information to the greatest effect. Some people may have received payments and others may have made payments. This is essentially a counterintelligence investigation that could have criminal implications, but it’s an essential task. It’s important regardless of whether Trump would have won or lost in the absence of these (possible) actions.
On the whole, the case the editors make is less than fully persuasive because it doesn’t stick to the key points and actually provides some evidence that some important supporters of an independent counsel or prosecutor are narrowly motivated on hurting the president rather than on goals that should have bipartisan support.
Where the editors are on solid ground is where they point out that Rosenstein, by authoring the Comey memo, compromised his ability to oversee any investigations into Russian meddling in our elections. He either needs to recuse himself now, at a minimum, or he needs to assign someone independent of the administration to take over the job.