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 GrahamRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Graham invites Giuliani to testify about recent Ukraine trip 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 ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls 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 SessionsLisa Page sues DOJ, FBI over alleged privacy violations Sessions leads GOP Senate primary field in Alabama, internal poll shows Trump rebukes FBI chief Wray over inspector general's Russia inquiry 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) ManchinSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump Manchin warns he'll slow-walk government funding bill until he gets deal on miners legislation 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 HolderHolder rips into William Barr: 'He is unfit to lead the Justice Department' The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Pelosi refers to Sinclair's Rosen as 'Mr. Republican Talking Points' over whistleblower question 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 SchumerTurf war derails bipartisan push on surprise medical bills Senate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave MORE (D-N.Y.) voted to confirm Rosenstein, saying the nominee had a “reputation for integrity.”

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' 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 DurbinSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Lawmakers introduce bill taxing e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaigns Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report 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 WhitehouseDemocrats rip Barr over IG statement: 'Mouthpiece' for Trump Trump brings pardoned soldiers on stage at Florida fundraiser: report Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill 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 ThuneTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn House GOP lawmaker wants Senate to hold 'authentic' impeachment trial Republicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial 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.”