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CNN  — 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein quipped about congressional demands and critics of the Justice Department in a speech Thursday in Chicago that delivered a passive rebuke to his detractors in Washington.

Rosenstein offered no direct critiques – or specific mention – of President Donald Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill, who have threatened his job in a battle over access to sensitive documents. But his jokes were telling.

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Recalling the words of former Attorney General Edward Levi, who served in Gerald’s Ford administration and “devoted his tenure to building public confidence in law enforcement,” Rosenstein deviated from his prepared remarks: “Levi, incidentally, also served less than two years. Just saying.”

With a reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general, Robert Jackson, whose “tenure was replete with challenges,” Rosenstein landed another veiled jab.

“One of the difficulties Jackson faced was what he called the ‘unpleasant duty’ of responding to congressional inquiries,” he said, grinning as he paused for a full beat that was filled with laughter and applause from the crowd of lawyers.

Rosenstein, a lifelong Republican, has become an unlikely hero of the left as he’s parried with conservative lawmakers and defended the integrity of the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation, which he oversees.

Trump has dinged Rosenstein in interviews and in private, and has made near-daily broadsides against the Russia probe.

Last month, in a move seen as an attempt to undermine that probe, a group of House Republicans introduced a resolution to impeach Rosenstein for noncompliance with congressional subpoenas for Justice Department documents.

Thursday, at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association, Rosenstein received a hearty standing ovation – before even beginning his speech.

Along with the pointed parables, he spoke of the virtues of blind justice, rhetoric that would not be newsworthy under recent past administrations.

“We need to avoid any temptation to compromise important principles and seek a short-term benefit at the expense of long-term values. The Department of Justice, in which I serve, must never be a partisan actor,” Rosenstein said.

Asked about election interference, he gave clear-eyed explanations of the Russian operations in 2016 that echoed past remarks and of a Justice Department policy announced last month to better inform the public about foreign influence campaigns.

“Informing the American people is an important form of deterrence. If you know what’s happening, you’re more alert to it,” he said.

Dismissed at the end of the event by a moderator, who said Rosenstein had “a few things to go back to Washington and tend to,” the deputy attorney general landed one more laugh line:

“Please, can I stay!”