The White House and Justice Department didn’t take kindly to Comey’s remarks and pushed back on them quickly. Yet Rosenberg said much the same thing, adding his own fallacy to the mix: “When you get criticized from the right and the left, you probably hit it just about perfectly.” The DEA chief also played coy when asked about the administration’s feeling. “The White House is a building, so I’m not sure what the White House thinks,” he said.
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made it very clear what the White House thinks:
Mr. Rosenberg, as you pointed out, is the second administration official to make that kind of claim without any evidence. And the fact is the evidence does not support the claim that somehow our law enforcement officers all across the country are shirking their duties and failing to fulfill their responsibility to serve and protect the communities to which they’re assigned. So I guess you’d have to ask him exactly what point he’s trying to make. You might also ask him if there’s any evidence to substantiate the claim that he’s made.
That would be an aggressive brushback from the press secretary targeting anyone, much less an appointee in Obama’s own executive branch. As Earnest said, there’s a notable split within the administration—with Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaking supportively about police-reform efforts, while officials at the FBI and DEA contradict them.
Not that splits between the White House and the Justice Department, or between Main Justice and its constituent agencies, are new. Take the famous incident during the George W. Bush administration in which Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, went to stricken Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bed, seeking his sign-off on a surveillance program. Gonzales was blocked by two men: then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Ashcroft’s deputy—James Comey. Further back, generations of presidents fought with (and often lost to) FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the acting chief of the DEA shuns scrutiny. The anti-drug agency is a caricature of a poorly functioning law-enforcement organization. Rosenberg has led the agency since Administrator Michele Leonhart was forced to step down earlier this year over her mishandling of a sex scandal in the agency. For years, the DEA has been accused of abuses, revealed to be circumventing laws, and been chastised by inspectors general. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans as well as a sitting drug czar have described the War on Drugs as a failure. The question is not why Leonhart was forced out, but why it took so long. It’s no wonder that DEA wouldn’t welcome closer public scrutiny.
More broadly, the remarks from Comey and Rosenberg show the challenge that the White House has in trying to encourage police reform from above. After all the people in law enforcement tend to be, well, people in law enforcement. Even when, like Comey, they recognize failings in the ranks, there are tribal ties that lead them to give fellow police the benefit of the doubt. There’s only so much the president can do to push back on them. As one reporter asked Earnest, “At some point, does the president haul them in and say, shut up?” The spokesman’s answer basically admitted Obama’s lack of leverage, while implying that Comey had been called on the carpet. (“I think your newspaper reported that the president had the opportunity to meet with the FBI director last week where they talked about these issues. And as I relayed to you, I’m not going to get into the details of their conversation.”)