Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Last week, Jack Goldsmith and I had an exchange over whether the proper response to the President Trump's abuse of law enforcement was for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to resign in protest or merely to speak up and risk getting fired. While we disagreed over the right approach, we agreed that silently absorbing Trump's abuse was not an acceptable response, and that law enforcement leadership has a duty to speak up on behalf of apolitical, ethical law enforcement.
Now, a federal law enforcement leader has done just that—but it was neither Sessions nor Rosenstein.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that:
The nation’s top narcotics officer repudiated President Donald Trump’s remarks about police use of force, issuing a memo saying Drug Enforcement Administration agents must “always act honorably” by maintaining “the very highest standards” in the treatment of criminal suspects.
Chuck Rosenberg, who as acting DEA chief works for the president, told agency personnel world-wide in a Saturday memo to disregard any suggestion that roughing up suspects would be tolerated. The memo came a day after Mr. Trump told a crowd of law-enforcement officers they shouldn’t be “too nice” when arresting “thugs.”
“The president, in remarks delivered yesterday in New York, condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement,” begins the memo, titled “Who We Are” and marked “Global Distribution.”
Mr. Rosenberg wrote that although he is certain no “special agent or task force officer of the DEA would mistreat a defendant,” Mr. Trump’s comments required a response.
The White House, the Justice Department and the DEA, which is an arm of the Justice Department, declined to comment on the Rosenberg memo.
“I write to offer a strong reaffirmation of the operating principles to which we, as law enforcement professionals, adhere,” the memo says. “I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try.”
This is what it looks like when a law enforcement agency head is willing to speak seriously in response to Trump's abusive treatment of law enforcement and abusive vision of it.
And it's actually not the first time Rosenberg has spoken publicly about agency values over the past few months. Back in April, he testified before a congressional committee about the DEA's "Core Values program," which he iniated in 2015. The values he articulated are worth pausing over in relation to Trump's engagement with law enforcement generally. In his testimony, Rosenberg described that "these values reflect what it means to be a DEA employee" and said that "these Core Values . . . form the cornerstone for our Compliance Program, geared towards holding ourselves accountable and maintaining our integrity and reputation for future generations." Notably, he lists the core values explicitly in his email, which I quote in full below.
What are DEA's Core Values?
- Dedication to upholding the Constitution of the United States and the Rule of Law.
- Respect and compassion for those we protect and serve.
- Faithful and effective service to our country and its citizens.
- Devotion to our core mission of enforcing the nation’s drug laws and enhancing public health, safety, and national security.
- Uncompromising personal, professional, and institutional integrity.
- Accountability to ourselves, our Agency, and those we serve.
- Leadership and courage in our profession, communities, and lives.
- Commitment to diversity and excellence.
The FBI, notably, has a similar list.
These lists are valuable in the present moment because they help explain the deep clash that is taking place between President Trump and his senior law enforcement officials. Take a moment and ask yourself which of Rosenberg's core values President Trump might even plausibly be said to be adhering to.
Dedication to upholding the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law? Nope.
Respect and compassion? Pulease.
Faithful and effective service to our country and its citizens? Not a lot of either fidelity or effectiveness on display so far, but I suppose that one's in the mind of the beholder.
Devotion to the core mission of law enforcement and national security? This is a guy who has fired one FBI director for doing his job and has menaced his two top law enforcement officers in public. And he's spilled national security information in the Oval Office to an adversary foreign power. Of such devotion to the core mission a little goes a very long way.
Uncompromising personal, professional, and institutional integrity? To ask that question is to answer it.
Accountability? What have the first few months of the Trump administration been if not a giant effort at avoiding accountability?
Leadership and courage? The concepts are vague enough, I suppose, that Trump could claim in some macho sense to have shown them. But nothing about his conduct says either to me.
Commitment to diversity and excellence? Well, that's a comic note on which to end!
My verdict? He's zero for eight.
To boil it down, it's no surprise that a law enforcement officer of Rosenberg's stature has rebuked Trump for his comments and risked his wrath in doing so. He is on the record, and quite recently at that, telling Congress in effect that someone who behaved as Trump does routinely would be subject to disciplinary action for violating the cornerstone of his agency's vision of ethical law enforcement.
The surprise, rather, lies elsewhere. It's that it is the acting head of the DEA, not either the attorney general or the deputy attorney general, who has had the guts to say semi-publicly what everyone knows to be true: that President's Trump's approach to law enforcement is dangerous and that the senior ranks of law enforcement "have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try."
The President, in remarks delivered yesterday in New York, condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement.
In writing to you, I seek to advance no political, partisan, or personal agenda.
Nor do I believe that a Special Agent or Task Force Officer of the DEA would mistreat a defendant. I know that you would not.
So, why do I write?
I write to offer a strong reaffirmation of the operating principles to which we, as law enforcement professionals, adhere.
I write because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try.
Our Core Values are clear and applicable:
- Rule of Law
- Respect and Compassion
- Leadership and Courage
This is how we conduct ourselves. This is how we treat those whom we encounter in our work: victims, witnesses, subjects, and defendants. This is who we are.
I am incredibly grateful that you endeavor to live up to our Core Values, each day. It is not always easy, but it is always important.
We must earn and keep the public trust and continue to hold ourselves to the very highest standards. Ours is an honorable profession and, so, we will always act honorably.
Thank you for all that you do.
I am proud to be your colleague.