Rosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs

Greg Nash

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is stepping back into the public spotlight amid growing GOP skepticism about the Russia probe.

Rosenstein will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, marking his first public appearance before Congress since leaving the administration in May 2019. 

The hearing is the first of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) investigation into “Crossfire Hurricane,” the name of the FBI’s probe into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign, putting the former No. 2 Justice Department official in the middle of growing tensions in the Senate over the controversial investigations. 

“We have a lot to talk about,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of Graham’s committee. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and member of the panel, added that he was “curious” to see how the hearing played out. 

“There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since he appointed the special counsel, a lot of evidence of FISA abuse and improper use of confidential human sources to basically investigate a presidential candidate,” Cornyn added, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. 

Rosenstein was confirmed by the Senate in a 94-6 vote in 2017, but his status as a key figure of the Russia investigation soured his relationship with congressional Republicans, including a high-profile threat from House conservatives to try to impeach him. 

Republicans say they want to grill Rosenstein on two areas, in particular: the surveillance warrant applications against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and the decision to appoint a special counsel to take over the Russia probe after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey.

Rosenstein signed off on the final warrant application renewal against Page. And because former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Rosenstein was able to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel and oversaw the probe, which dominated Washington for the first two years of Trump’s presidency.

“I’d like to know from him, was he misled? …I’d like to hear from him whether or not he was informed about the content of the applications that he signed and that he presided over, and if not, why not, and what was going on there,” Hawley said. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a current member and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that he had not yet decided if he would ask Rosenstein questions, or use his time to vent frustration over the past three years. 

“I may just give my remarks … Generally how we’ve been misled for three years, you know, and it’s just now coming out,” Grassley said. 

Grassley has previously singled out Rosenstein as blocking his requests for information tied to the Russia probe. Asked about that on Monday, he added, “I think it’s pretty clear that what he said we could have, he worked with the director of national intelligence for us not to get.” 

Both Hawley and Cornyn said that they also wanted Rosenstein’s views in “retrospect” on his decision to appoint a special counsel in the wake of Comey’s firing — a decision that garnered bipartisan support at the time. 

“I’m sure he’ll be asked that,” Hawley said. 

Graham, in a statement, said Rosenstein would “testify about the new revelations contained in the Horowitz report concerning the FISA warrant applications and other matters.”

Rosenstein was interviewed as part of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review of the Page warrant applications and renewals. 

Horowitz’s report found that Rosenstein and other department officials “did not have accurate and complete information at the time they approved them.” 

Rosenstein tipped his hand to Horowitz’s report in a statement, saying that “even the best law enforcement officers make mistakes, and that some engage in willful misconduct.” 

“Independent law enforcement investigations, judicial review, and congressional oversight are important checks on the discretion of agents and prosecutors,” he added. 

Rosenstein’s two-year tenure was beset by controversy. He authored a memo that Trump initially used as justification for firing Comey, though the president later said he would have fired the FBI director regardless. 

His job security was also viewed as rocky after The New York Times reported in September 2018 that he had discussed secretly recording Trump and recruiting other officials to invoke the 25th Amendment to expel Trump from office. Rosenstein vehemently denied the report as inaccurate; Trump himself said he didn’t believe it, electing to keep Rosenstein on in his job.

Graham has been planning to subpoena Rosenstein, but a spokesperson for the GOP senator confirmed that he has dropped the legal threat after reaching a deal for his testimony. 

The hearing comes as Republicans are ramping up their investigations into decisions stemming from the Obama administration as Trump prepares to face off against former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November. 

Democrats have fumed over the investigations, viewing them as attempts to target Trump’s political rivals, including Biden, that run the risk of spreading Russian misinformation. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters on Monday that Judiciary Committee Democrats had not yet discussed their strategy for Rosenstein. 

But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called on McConnell to force the GOP chairman to cancel “conspiracy hearings.” 

“They have failed the American people by turning the institutions of the Senate into an extension of the President’s re-election campaign … Republican Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold yet another hearing, not on the pandemic, but on baseless conspiracy theories related to the 2016 election. Leader McConnell should instruct these committees to cancel these conspiracy hearings,” Schumer wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. 

Schumer added from the Senate floor on Monday that “there shouldn’t be hearings on President Trump’s wild conspiracies about the 2016 election.” 

Graham is doing a deep dive into the Russia investigation, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the investigation of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, which was a part of Mueller’s investigation. 

At the same time, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is conducting a wide-ranging investigation that looks at the same issues, as well as Hunter Biden and Ukrainian company Burisma Holdings. 

Both panels are scheduled to hold subpoena votes on Thursday that, if successful, will escalate their respective investigations into a new phase. Because Republicans hold a majority on both committees they will be able to grant Johnson and Graham the power to issue subpoenas without support from Democrats, who are anticipated to vote against the effort. 

“What we saw was a total corruption of that before, during and after this transition. It’s incredibly serious,” Johnson told Fox News during an interview on Sunday. 

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Donald Trump James Comey Jeff Sessions Joe Biden John Cornyn Josh Hawley Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Robert Mueller Rod Rosenstein Ron Johnson
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