(CNN)Rod Rosenstein’s announcement Monday night that he will leave his post as deputy attorney general on May 11 was no big surprise. But it does offer up a chance to look back over the past two years at his absolutely central role in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election — and figure out whether Rosenstein was a force for good or ill when it comes to not only that investigation but his larger role within the Justice Department.
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And when you begin to dive into Rosenstein’s record since coming into the DAG job, the contradictions immediately emerge. Consider:* Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel and protected the probe, allowing Mueller to investigate to his satisfaction — despite the many attempts (publicly and privately) to end or curtail the investigation by President Donald Trump.* Rosenstein authored a memo — at the behest of Trump — laying out the case for why then-FBI Director James Comey should be removed from his job due to his repeated flouting of the chain of command and DOJ practices during the Hillary Clinton email investigation during the 2016 election. (Trump undermined his own White House’s assertion that the Rosenstein memo had been the impetus for firing Comey when he told NBC’s Lester Holt he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he chose to fire Comey.)* In the days following Comey’s firing, Rosenstein proposed wearing a wire to document conversations with Trump and pondered which Cabinet members might be recruited to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.Read More* Rosenstein stood by Attorney General William Barr’s side on the day of the release of the Mueller report to Congress and the public, tacitly affirming his solidarity with the decidedly pro-Trump spin that Barr was putting on the report. (The press conference was held 90 minutes before the actual report was released.) In that press conference, Barr made clear that the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction in the investigation was a joint one made by him and Rosenstein.Even Trump — the king of are-you-with-me-or-against-me politics — never could seem to totally decide on whether Rosenstein was with him or not.In April 2018,Trump tweeted this — citing Rosenstein’s decision to sign a FISA warrant allowing the surveillance of Carter Page in 2016:”Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!”But by August of last year, Trump seemed to have turned a corner on the DAG — telling The Wall Street Journal he and Rosenstein had a “fantastic” relationship.By early 2019, things had soured again — with Trump widely expected to fire Rosenstein in the wake of reporting about the wire and 25th Amendment talks.”Wow, so many lies by now disgraced acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe,” Trump tweeted in February. “He was fired for lying, and now his story gets even more deranged. He and Rod Rosenstein, who was hired by Jeff Sessions (another beauty), look like they were planning a very illegal act, and got caught.”Rosenstein was never fired, however, and by all accounts, closes his tenure with goodwill from the President. That may have been due to the fact that Rosenstein pleaded with Trump to keep him in the job, reportedly telling the President: “I give the investigation credibility. I can land the plane.”And yet, even with a foot out the door, it’s not easy to fit Rosenstein into a simple box. Yes, as The Washington Post reported over the weekend, Rosenstein seemed to make the case to Trump that he was the President’s best bet to ensure the Mueller report ended — and in a way that the public thought was credible. But Rosenstein also delivered this ominous comment during a speech last week: “The bottom line is that there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives had hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that was only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord and undermine America.”Using phrases like “only the tip of the iceberg” would seem to suggest that Rosenstein believed there’s much more for Congress to look into, a prospect that Trump can’t be happy about.Rosenstein, both in the moment and in retrospect, is very, very hard to pin down. Without him, there’s a very real chance the Mueller probe never begins and/or never gets to conclude all of its work. At the same time. Rosenstein lent his credibility to the Barr conclusion that not only should the DOJ offer a ruling on whether Trump obstructed but also to conclude that the President had not.The truth of Rosenstein is that he found himself in a position — at the center of a national (and international) controversy — for which he was simply unprepared. (In his defense, there’s no one on earth who would have been prepared for that onslaught.) As a result, he careened in between his loyalties to the Justice Department (and its long-held practices) and a President who seemed to neither know nor care about breaking every precedent there is.Caught between those competing loyalties, Rosenstein often vacillated between the two — sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. As a result, there’s enough evidence to call him the hero or the villain of this whole production. The truest truth lies somewhere in between all that partisan blame-gaming. Rosenstein was a human being put into an impossible spot. He reacted accordingly.