WASHINGTON (JTA) — Speaking to the Anti-Defamation League, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general at the center of President Donald Trump’s contentious relationship with his Justice Department, extolled the rule of law as a barrier between civilization and depravity.
Rosenstein’s speech to the group, which itself has an adversarial relationship with the Trump administration, was on the surface a paean to Trump’s better angels, depicting Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions as fellow warriors with the Anti-Defamation League in the battle against bias crimes.
But it was also a strident defense of adherence to the rule of law, with a long aside about the merits of resisting a ruler’s illegal orders. “We study the Holocaust not only to understand the depths of depravity that people can perpetrate, but also as a reminder to guard against the risk of moral corruption in our own time,” he said. “The importance of enforcing the rule of law is a central lesson of the Holocaust.”
The speech’s centerpiece was Rosenstein’s praise for the plea for unity Trump delivered in the aftermath of a racially charged killing — but Trump, notably, later retreated from those remarks, much to the chagrin of Jewish groups.
“One way that the Department of Justice helps to enforce the rule of law and deter discrimination is to prosecute hate crime violations,” Rosenstein, who is Jewish, said Sunday night at ADL’s annual Washington conference. “When victims are attacked because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, there are laws that empower us to respond. Enforcing those laws is important to President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, and we enforce them aggressively.”
Rosenstein quoted Trump speaking after last August’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, when during a white supremacist march, a marcher rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring at least 20.
“President Trump recognized last August that ‘no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God’,” Rosenstein said, quoting the president. “‘We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.’” Rosenstein went on to liken Trump to President Abraham Lincoln and his bid to unite Americans in divisive times.
The remarks by Trump Rosenstein quoted were delivered Aug. 14, after Trump said on the day of the Charlottesville attack, Aug. 12, that “many sides” were responsible for the violence. Trump’s equating the neo-Nazi and white supremacists marchers to the counterprotesters prompted rebukes from across the political spectrum, including the gamut of Jewish groups. The prepared remarks Trump delivered on Aug. 14 — reportedly at the behest of his Jewish daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner — assuaged concerns for a day. Then, on Aug. 15, the president stirred outrage once again when he told reporters in an impromptu press conference that there was “blame on both sides” and that there were “fine people” among the white supremacists.
Trump has subsequently stood by that characterization, that there were good and bad people on both sides, but Rosenstein was so taken with Trump’s Aug. 14 plea for “the bonds of love and loyalty,” he quoted the passage twice, at the beginning and at the end of his speech.
Rosenstein has been under intense pressure because of his role overseeing the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is investigating a wide-ranging case stemming from allegations that Trump’s campaign and presidency have colluded with Russia. Sessions has recused himself from the investigation, making Rosenstein the only person authorized to fire Mueller, unless Trump fires Rosenstein. Trump has called multiple times for the case to be shut down and as recently as last month criticized Rosenstein as “conflicted.”
Rosenstein had, for the most part, resisted firing back at Trump and indeed has praised him on multiple occasions. Then, last week, in an appearance at Washington’s Newseum, Rosenstein said, “there have been people that have been making threats, publicly and privately, against me for quite some time, and I think they should understand by now: The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.” The impromptu outburst was widely seen as directed at Trump and his congressional allies.
Rosenstein’s ADL remarks, delivered to an attentive if mostly silent crowd, did not refer to his difficult status within the administration. But notably, a chunk of his speech was about Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord High Councillor who preferred beheading to carrying out King Henry VIII’s illegal requests. “The point is that we must defend the rule of law at all times, even when it is difficult, so it will be there for us when we need it,” he said.
Praising the ADL for its work in educating law enforcement about the Holocaust, Rosenstein said, “The importance of enforcing the rule of law is a central lesson of the Holocaust.
Rosenstein repeatedly credited Trump for the Justice Department’s focus on bias crimes. He noted the recent U.S. indictment of a 19-year-old dual American-Israeli citizen believed to be responsible for a spate of bomb threats on Jewish institutions in 2017, and the prosecution of bias crimes against Muslims and LGBTQ people.
ADL, a leading advocate in encouraging police departments to identify and prosecute hate crimes, has itself had run-ins with the Trump administration and has been particularly active opposing Trump’s efforts to ban travel from a number of Muslim majority countries.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, appearing after Rosenstein, spoke of the price exacted on ADL for its confrontations with the left and the right.
“So when there is a nominee for high office that has spouted anti-Muslim bigotry or homophobic beliefs, ADL will speak out even if it means we may not be invited to their holiday party,” Greenblatt said. “When they try to put in place a Muslim ban, we will take a stand and fight them in court.”