Senators say Rosenstein knew of Comey firing before recommendation
Congress | Deputy attorney general answers questions on Comey and Russia probe during closed-door Senate session
by Evan Wilt
Posted 5/18/17, 06:38 pm
WASHINGTON—Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met privately with the Senate Thursday afternoon, telling lawmakers he knew President Donald Trump wanted to fire FBI Director James Comey before he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent letters to Trump recommending the same action.
Last week, Trump abruptly fired Comey, citing recommendations from Rosenstein and Sessions and the need to restore the nation’s trust in the FBI. But later in the week Trump contradicted the White House’s official response on Comey’s dismissal in an interview with NBC, saying he planned to fire him regardless of the Justice Department’s recommendations.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters after today’s meeting that Rosenstein “did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo.”
Several senators said they did not get all of their questions answered this afternoon but they uniformly praised Rosenstein for appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and collusion with the Trump campaign. Others said Rosenstein had to limit what he told them, not wanting to impede Mueller’s new task of leading the Russia investigation.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had a different takeaway: “It was a counter-intelligence investigation before now and it seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation.”
He explained to reporters that he thinks Mueller will do a great job, but with the new special counsel treating this as a criminal investigation, it will likely shackle congressional probes in terms of who they can call to testify.
Both the House and Senate Intelligence committees are investigating Russia’s possible election interference along with Graham’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. In addition, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the full Senate Judiciary Committee have asked Comey to testify before them in public hearings.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters that adding a special counsel to the existing congressional probes is a “train wreck” waiting to happen. He said Rosenstein acknowledged this as well and asked for a single congressional point of contact for Mueller. Cornyn added that he’s hopeful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can come to an agreement on Rosenstein’s request.
Meanwhile, the congressional probes will work independent of Mueller’s investigation, which Trump said in a tweet earlier today is a “witch hunt” against him.
At joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Thursday afternoon, President Trump said Mueller’s Russia probe would further divide Americans.
“I believe it hurts our country terribly because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country,” Trump said.
Mueller, 72, has the second-longest tenure as FBI director in the bureau’s history, stepping down after 12 years in 2013, with Comey succeeding him. He is the only director ever appointed by two presidents from two different political parties.
The naming of Mueller as special counsel Wednesday evening received a flurry of bipartisan praise.
Schumer, speaking from the Senate floor Thursday, said Mueller is the right individual to lead the investigation.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, “I have full confidence that he will conduct an independent, thorough, and fair investigation.”
William Barr, the attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, said Mueller’s appointment is actually a good sign for Trump.
“His appointment is good news for those concerned over the troubling way the investigation was handled over the summer and fall, as well as the many government leaks,” he said. “I am confident that Mueller will keep his eye on legitimate areas of inquiry and not let this investigation degenerate into a sprawling, ceaseless witch hunt to ‘get something’ on the president’s associates.”
Because Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department’s Russia probe, Rosenstein is the acting attorney general regarding the investigation. According to law, Trump cannot directly fire Mueller, only Rosenstein can, but Trump could direct Rosenstein to fire the special counsel and dismiss Rosenstein if he refuses and put someone in his place who would carry out his orders.
Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.