Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dropped two bombshells during a hotly-anticipated appearance before the Senate on Thursday, less than 24 hours after he announced the appointment of a special prosecutor in the FBI’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
According to lawmakers, Rosenstein confirmed that the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the election is no longer strictly a counterintelligence investigation — a kind of probe that does not normally result in charges — but also a criminal one.
He also said he was aware President Trump intended to fire Comey prior to penning a memo that the White House later used as its justification for the dismissal.
Lawmakers emerged from the closed-door meeting painting a sober picture of the briefing. Sen. Chris CoonsChris CoonsRussia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcementOvernight Defense: Trump hits back over special counsel | US bombs pro-Assad forces | GOP chairman unveils proposed Pentagon buying reformsSenators told of broadening Russia investigationMORE (D-Del.) described the mood in the room as serious and thoughtful.
Across town, as lawmakers descended into a secure facility to receive the briefing, Trump was ripping the appointment of the special counsel as something that “hurts the country.”
“I believe it hurts the country terribly, because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country,” Trump told news anchors at a luncheon at the White House.
But Republicans declined to echo the president’s outrage amid an increasingly bipartisan swirl of concern that the White House may have tried to interfere with the FBI’s investigation.
“The president is entitled to his opinion, but we’re a nation of laws. … The acting attorney general has the authority to appoint a special counsel and has done so,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators told of broadening Russia investigationRubio on Trump’s ‘witch hunt’ tweet: ‘We’re a nation of laws’The Democrats can be great again, here’s howMORE (R-Fla.) told reporters.
Rosenstein met with lawmakers for more than an hour, but apparently gave few details about the decision-making process for firing Comey, including the role of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsTrump White House feels under siegeSenators told of broadening Russia investigationHouse votes to expand death penalty for police killingsMORE, who instructed him to write the Comey memo, or any conversations he had with President Trump.
“He declined to answer in any meaningful way questions about the process that lead to the decision to fire Jim Comey — the preparation of his memo, who told him [to write it],” Coons said, adding that he was asked whether he was directed to produce the memo multiple times.
Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerRussia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcementSenators told of broadening Russia investigationIntel panels: House, Senate Russia probes to proceedMORE (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, added that Rosenstein “did not answer specifics on virtually any question that was asked.”
But senators — in part reassured by the selection of former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor — signaled they were willing to give forgive Rosenstein’s tight-lipped stance if it was meant to protect the FBI’s investigation.
“As it became clear how little he was willing to talk about, it also became clear how broad this investigation that Mueller is about to undertake actually is,” Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphySenators told of broadening Russia investigationSpecial counsel appointment gets bipartisan praisePotential 2020 Dems look beyond TrumpMORE (D-Conn.) told reporters.
Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinRussia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcementSenators told of broadening Russia investigationDurbin: Trump will ‘hang himself’ with tweetsMORE (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said, “there was some frustration” in the room.
“People wanted questions answered …[but] it’s not unreasonable position for him to take. People were respectful and thankful he showed up. He showed up. He didn’t have to.”
Democrats pointed to the role of Sessions as one of their top unanswered questions leaving the briefing. Sessions recused himself earlier this year from FBI’s investigation but was involved in the decision to fire Comey — a move Democrats argue violated his promise.
“Many of us including myself asked that question,” Durbin said. “I can’t square Sessions’s recusal with his role in dismissing the person who was in charge of the investigation.”
Rosenstein will cross the Capitol on Friday to hold an identical meeting with House lawmakers. Democrats also want Sessions to meet with all senators during a separate closed-door briefing.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters that Rosenstein was concerned that any comments he made to senators in the closed-door briefing “would be made public to press, so therefore he felt limited in what he could say.”
Lawmakers on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees reportedly expressed concerns during the meeting that Mueller’s appointment will interfere with Congress’s ability to investigate election meddling — and possibly preclude testimony by Comey.
Multiple committees have been clamoring for Comey to appear on the Hill to describe both the circumstances surrounding his dismissal and answer questions about any interference in the FBI’s investigation by the White House.
Coons called the impact of the appointment on Comey’s testimony “an open question.”
Both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are conducting their own probes into Russian interference in the election. Congressional investigations often cede jurisdiction to any concurrent federal investigations — a coordinating process called “deconfliction.”
Rosenstein on Wednesday gave former FBI Director Bob Mueller control of not only the investigation into whether Trump campaign associates coordinated with Russia, but also any other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” — like Comey’s dismissal.
Asked about the potential that the competing investigation could limit who appears before their committee, Warner called it a “great question” but that he and Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrRussia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcementOvernight Defense: Trump hits back over special counsel | US bombs pro-Assad forces | GOP chairman unveils proposed Pentagon buying reformsSenators told of broadening Russia investigationMORE (R-N.C.) needed more information from Mueller.
“In many ways our purview is broader than what may be some of the Justice Department/FBI investigation,” he added, defending the need to continue the congressional investigations.
There was one moment of levity in the breifing, lawmakers said.
One senator reportedly asked Rosenstein, very gravely, “I insist that you answer the one question that is on all our minds: how do we appropriately pronounce your name?”
“Rosen-stine” is correct, he replied.