Have you ever made compromises in your personal or professional ethics to keep a good job or get a promotion? If so, perhaps you justified these nips and tucks in principles on the grounds that they weren’t all that serious or that they were warranted because the institution was better off with you there than gone. But the problem with one ethical accommodation is that it often turns into a demand for another. Bosses and institutions that are corrupt ultimately present their subordinates with a moral choice between going along or getting out.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein seems a particularly sharp example of the tricky ethical choices facing many in the Trump administration and the murky moral waters in which they swim. Rosenstein, it would appear, is willing to make certain compromises to please his boss. He wrote the memo severely criticizing then-FBI Director James Comey. When the Trump administration used it as justification for Comey’s firing, there were reports that Rosenstein threatened to quit, reports that Rosenstein denied publicly.
CNN is now reporting on another difficult situation for Rosenstein. At a December Oval Office meeting, where Rosenstein asked for President Trump’s help in staving off document demands from the House Intelligence Committee, the president, according to CNN, blew by that request and wanted to know whether or not Rosenstein was “on my team.” Rosenstein supposedly responded, “Of course, we’re all on your team, Mr. President.” But when asked during his December testimony whether he had been asked to take a loyalty pledge, Rosenstein said no.
Rosenstein seems to be on a very thin ethical tightrope without a net. He shows a pattern of principled stands, appointing and strongly defending special counsel Robert Mueller and calling on the House Intelligence Committee and the White House not to release an incomplete and inaccurate report on the alleged political bias of the Justice Department in the Russia investigation. But he has also seemingly made compromises to curry favor: the Comey memo, where he seemed to do the political bidding of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on behalf of a president desperate to justify the firing of the FBI director. Or, assuming the reports are accurate, his looking the other way or parsing when given the opportunity to take a strong stand against what is clearly inappropriate or illegal behavior by the president in asking about Rosenstein’s loyalty or misusing his work product for political purposes.
For example, it certainly makes sense that Rosenstein would have been upset by the president citing his memo on Comey’s behavior in the Hillary Clinton email investigation as the reason he fired the former director. It was a ludicrous excuse for an action that the president later admitted was all about his opposition to the Russia investigation. Why, then, didn’t Rosenstein resign and make his case publicly? Perhaps, he reasoned he was needed to shepherd and steady the Russia investigation as it transitioned from Comey to Mueller.
Next, how could Rosenstein not have balked, perhaps even resigned, when the president asked him if he was on his team? Or when the president seemed much more concerned about what Rosenstein would say before the committee than in the deputy attorney general’s plea for help to protect the Justice Department? Rosenstein had to have been aware that, in the current context, questions of loyalty are sinister and likely to soon become Exhibit H in the obstruction of justice case against the president.
In his recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Rosenstein may have given insight into how he justifies his ethical balancing act. “As long as you are following your oath of office,” Rosenstein said, “you can also be faithful to the administration.”
But here’s the rub. What if the administration to which you are faithful is corrupting the Constitution that you have sworn an oath to protect? This is the ethical dilemma facing the deputy attorney general and he needs to make a choice: Is he loyal to Trump, or faithful to the Constitution?
Carter Eskew is a founder of The Glover Park Group who oversees the firm’s branding, corporate reputation and creative services.