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Rosenstein briefs House members in second visit to Capitol Hill

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 5/19/2017 Sari Horwitz, Karoun Demirjian, Elise Viebeck
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein arrives on Capitol Hill on Thursday for a closed-door meeting with senators. © Jacquelyn Martin/AP Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein arrives on Capitol Hill on Thursday for a closed-door meeting with senators.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein returned to Capitol Hill on Friday, this time briefing House members a day after he told the full Senate that the White House’s initial account of FBI Director James B. Comey’s firing was not accurate.

Thursday afternoon’s briefing had left several questions unanswered.

Rosenstein told senators that he knew that Comey would be fired before he wrote a controversial memo that the White House initially used as its justification for the dismissal. But lawmakers are still unsure of what exactly President Trump said when he told Rosenstein he intended to fire Comey.

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“There are some missing pieces here,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday, accusing Rosenstein of “intentionally” leaving certain facts out. “What did the president say?”

Rosenstein was not asked whether he threatened to resign after Trump suggested his memo prompted Comey’s dismissal. And he did not settle senators’ concerns about maintaining access to witnesses and documents that will be part of the probe run by the new special counsel, former FBI director and federal prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III.

“How can you subpoena somebody to come to Congress when they’re under criminal investigation? You can’t,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. He lamented that “one of the biggest losers of this decision is public access.”

Rosenstein did, however, emphasize to the senators the independent authority Mueller will wield.

“If one thing is clear from the meeting we just had, it is that Mr. Mueller has broad and wide-ranging authority to follow the facts wherever they go,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “That gives me confidence and should give the American people some confidence.”

Some Democrats exiting Friday’s meeting expressed frustration that Rosenstein was not more forthcoming.

Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) described it as a “brief presentation followed by a Q and A. And not a whole lot of A.” Crist said. Rosenstein didn’t explain who asked him to draft his memo — “or if” someone had.

“Given that it was a classified briefing, I think there were a couple of questions that Mr. Rosenstein could have answered, had he been willing to, but instead demurred,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.). He declined to be more specific.

House lawmakers were expected to push Rosenstein to reveal more significant details about the Comey firing, his decision to appoint Mueller as special counsel, and the ongoing Russia investigation.

Although Thursday’s meeting was held in a secure room in the Capitol Visitors Center where classified information can be discussed, nothing Rosenstein shared with the senators was “remotely classified,” according to one senator who spoke about the meeting on the condition of anonymity.

“He could have shared what he told us in a public hearing,” the senator said.

Because of Mueller’s wide scope in the Russian probe, Rosenstein referred several of the senators’ questions to the new special counsel, frustrating many of the senators who wanted to learn more.

Rosenstein “was very careful about not going into any details surrounding the removal because he wants to give Robert Mueller the opportunity to make an independent decision” about how to proceed, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said as she emerged from the briefing.

Rosenstein received strong support from the Senate a month ago when he was confirmed by a vote of 94 to 6 to be the Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking official. But his reputation has come under fierce attack in the past week over the memo he wrote about Comey.

Since Comey’s firing on May 9, the calls for Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel intensified, especially from Democratic lawmakers who said he could no longer be impartial in the Russia investigation. Rosenstein had been put in charge of the probe as soon as he was confirmed because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself after The Washington Post reported on contacts he had with the Russian ambassador that he had not disclosed when asked about them during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Rosenstein did not notify White House counsel Donald McGahn of his special counsel decision until 5:30 p.m., the same time Justice Department officials were briefing reporters and 30 minutes before the news became public. Senior congressional aides said some lawmakers were also given a heads-up in advance of the White House.

In the Senate meeting, each senator was given the opportunity to ask one question. Several Democrats asked multiple questions, and some Republicans took a pass.

Rosenstein told the senators that, in fact, Trump had decided to fire Comey the day before he wrote his memo.

“To me, it was significant that he stated that he knew that the decision to fire Comey had been made the day before he drafted the memo,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

Why Rosenstein felt compelled to write the memo remains unknown. Durbin said Rosenstein told the senators that he was not pressured into writing it.

“He learned the president’s decision to fire him and then he wrote his memo with his rationale,” Durbin said.

According to a person close to the White House, Rosenstein was upset about the narrative that emerged from the White House on the evening of May 9. White House officials cast Rosenstein as the prime person behind the decision to fire Comey, even though Trump had already decided to terminate the director. Rosenstein threatened to resign from the Justice Department because of the explanation that White House officials were giving reporters about the firing, said a person close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

By May 10, White House officials had backed off blaming Rosenstein for the firing, and the next day, Trump contradicted his own officials and told NBC News that the decision to fire Comey was his alone and that he was thinking of “this Russia thing with Trump” when he made it.

During Thursday’s news conference, Trump contradicted both his own account and that of Rosenstein. “Director Comey was very unpopular with most people,” Trump said. “I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.”

The president also expressed surprise that he had not received bipartisan support for his decision to fire Comey. He called the suggestion he had done anything potentially worthy of criminal charges “totally ridiculous.”

Trump had earlier in the morning lashed out on Twitter at the news of the special prosecutor, calling the move a politically motivated “witch hunt” by his Democratic rivals. The president’s anger contrasted with a more measured written statement released by the White House on Wednesday evening, when Trump declared that a thorough investigation would find “no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.”

Several Republican senators asked Rosenstein whether the Senate Intelligence Committee could continue its own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election now that Mueller has been appointed special counsel on the same matter. Rosenstein was “unequivocal” that the panel can and should continue its investigation, according to people familiar with his remarks.

Kelsey Snell, David Nakamura, Sean Sullivan and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.


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