WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rod Rosenstein came to the annual conference of the Anti-Defamation League with plaudits for Donald Trump despite being at the center of the president’s contentious relationship with his Justice Department.
He extolled Trump’s call for unity in the wake of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in August that turned deadly and compared him to Abraham Lincoln.
Rosenstein’s speech to the group, which itself has an adversarial relationship with the Trump administration, depicted Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as fellow warriors with the ADL in the battle against bias crimes.
But it was also a strident defense of adhering 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 told the ADL crowd on Sunday night. “The importance of enforcing the rule of law is a central lesson of the Holocaust.”
The centerpiece of the address was Rosenstein’s praise for the plea for unity that Trump delivered in the aftermath of the Virginia rally last summer. 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,” said Rosenstein, who is Jewish. “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 the violence in Charlottesville, when 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 Lincoln and his bid to unite Americans in divisive times.
He quoted remarks Trump delivered on Aug. 14, after the president said on the day of the Aug. 12 violence in Charlottesville that “many sides” were responsible. Trump’s equating the neo-Nazi and white supremacist marchers to the counterprotesters prompted rebukes from across the political spectrum, including the gamut of Jewish groups.
The prepared remarks of Aug. 14 — reportedly presented at the behest of his Jewish daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner — assuaged concerns for a day. However, the president stirred outrage again the very next day when he told reporters in an impromptu news conference that there was “blame on both sides” and “fine people” among the white supremacists.
Trump has subsequently stood by the characterization that there are 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 does. Trump has called multiple times for the case to be shut down and as recently as last month criticized Rosenstein as “conflicted.”
Rosenstein for the most part had resisted firing back at Trump and indeed has praised him on multiple occasions. 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 Chancellor 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.
Rosenstein praised the ADL for its work in educating law enforcement about the Holocaust.
He repeatedly credited Trump for the Justice Department’s focus on bias crimes. Rosenstein noted the recent U.S. indictment of a 19-year-old 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 had its run-ins with the Trump administration and has been particularly active in opposing the president’s efforts to ban travel from a number of Muslim majority countries.
The group’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, appeared after Rosenstein and spoke of the price exacted on the 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.”