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Rosenstein to be grilled today on Trump bombshells

Rod Rosenstein is expected to be grilled Thursday on back-to-back political bombshells that have rattled the nation’s capital. 

The deputy attorney general will brief all senators on Thursday afternoon behind closed doors, giving many lawmakers their first face-to-face meeting with an administration official since President Trump’s surprise decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. 

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In the wake of intense pressure from Democrats, Rosenstein announced Wednesday evening that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will serve as special counsel to probe any election collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Rosenstein had previously declined to appoint a special counsel. 

Senators will lob questions at the newly minted deputy attorney general, who recommended Comey’s firing in a memo to Trump before the FBI chief was terminated last week. The timing of Rosenstein’s decision to tap Mueller will surely come up on Thursday and whether Rosenstein consulted the White House before making his decision.

Asked on what he wanted to hear from Rosenstein, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Pence tours Rio Grande between US and Mexico GOP looks for Plan B after failure of immigration measures MORE (R-S.C.) said, “It’s pretty simple: Did you support the decision to fire [Comey] and tell us about the letter and how it came about.”

Another issue that is likely to come up is whether Rosenstein was aware of the memo that Comey reportedly wrote after Trump allegedly suggested that the FBI director back off in the probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. 

Rosenstein became a lightning rod over Comey’s firing when the White House initially tried to hang the decision on a memo from Rosenstein that criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWoman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Trump: CNN, MSNBC 'got scammed' into covering Russian-organized rally Pennsylvania Democrats set to win big with new district map MORE’s use of a private email server while secretary of State.  

Rosenstein’s memo stated that “the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage” since 2016. Trump later told NBC News that he was prepared to fire Comey no matter the recommendation from Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand MORE

The political landmines awaiting Rosenstein are a dramatic shift from the bipartisan praise he received during his confirmation hearing. Democrats lauded him as a potential check on Sessions, whom they don’t trust with the Russia investigation and worry will steer the administration to the hard right. 

Only six Democrats — four of whom are viewed as potential 2020 presidential candidates — voted against Rosenstein’s nomination. By comparison, only one — Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Toomey to introduce bill broadening background checks for firearms Scott Walker backs West Virginia attorney general in GOP Senate primary MORE (W.Va.) — voted for Sessions. All Republicans backed Rosenstein in the 94-6 roll call.

Rosenstein, 52, has been involved in many high-profile cases at the Justice Department. For example, then-Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Pennsylvania Supreme Court releases new congressional map 36 people who could challenge Trump in 2020 MORE tapped Rosenstein to find out who was leaking classified information about the U.S. cyberattack efforts against Iran. Retired Marine Gen. James Cartright subsequently pleaded guilty. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.) voted to confirm Rosenstein, saying the nominee had a “reputation for integrity.”

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers feel pressure on guns Feinstein: Trump must urge GOP to pass bump stock ban Florida lawmakers reject motion to consider bill that would ban assault rifles MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, also backed Rosenstein because of his “impressive credentials” while also warning against the danger of the Justice Department becoming politicized. 

But that admiration for Rosenstein has dissolved into frustration and confusion for many Democrats, who had been irritated with Rosenstein’s initial reluctance to appoint a special counsel.

Feinstein and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, had explicitly called for Rosenstein to resign if he refused to name a special counsel. 

While Thursday’s briefing is not open to the press, it’s likely that details of the meeting will be leaked.

Senate Republicans had suggested a special counsel wasn’t necessary, noting ongoing investigations had already begun — including one by the Senate Intelligence Committee. However, a handful of moderate GOP lawmakers had left the door open to a special counsel.

The push for Rosenstein to testify is the first of a growing list of Democratic demands in the wake of Comey’s firing. Democrats also want Sessions to meet with senators, Trump to release any potential recordings of his conversations and Comey to testify publicly. 

The Senate Intelligence Committee has issued an invitation to Comey to testify before the committee, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to issue a similar invitation. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseCommittee chairman aims for House vote on opioid bills by Memorial Day Regulators seek to remove barriers to electric grid storage Prison sentencing bill advances over Sessions objections MORE (D-R.I.) called the briefing with Rosenstein an “important step” before pivoting to the importance of having Comey himself come and speak to members about the reported memo.

Asked if he is hopeful that Rosenstein would be able to provide clarity, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFlake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March The 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework MORE (R-S.D.) responded: “I would like to think he is in the position to know the answer to a lot our questions, so I think that would be helpful. But I also think it’s important that Comey appear here and speak to members of Congress in an open setting.”