Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dropped two bombshells during a hotly anticipated appearance before the Senate on Thursday, less than 24 hours after he announced the appointment of a special counsel in the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election.
According to lawmakers, Rosenstein confirmed that the bureau’s investigation is no longer strictly a counterintelligence investigation — a kind of probe that does not normally result in charges — but also a criminal one.
He also said he was aware President Trump intended to fire Comey prior to penning a memo that the White House later used as its justification for the dismissal.
Lawmakers emerged from the closed-door meeting painting a sober picture of the briefing. Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBiden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict Senate Democrats to Garland: 'It's time to end the federal death penalty' Hillicon Valley: Cryptocurrency amendment blocked in Senate | Dems press Facebook over suspension of researchers' accounts | Thousands push back against Apple plan to scan US iPhones for child sexual abuse images MORE (D-Del.) described the mood in the room as serious and thoughtful.
Across town, as lawmakers descended into a secure facility to receive the briefing, Trump was ripping the appointment of the special counsel as something that “hurts the country.”
“I believe it hurts the country terribly, because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country,” Trump told news anchors at a luncheon at the White House.
But Republicans declined to echo the president’s outrage amid an increasingly bipartisan swirl of concern that the White House may have tried to interfere with the FBI’s investigation.
"The president is entitled to his opinion, but we’re a nation of laws. ... The acting attorney general has the authority to appoint a special counsel and has done so,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioMilley says calls to China were 'perfectly within the duties' of his job Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE (R-Fla.) told reporters.
Rosenstein met with lawmakers for more than an hour but apparently gave few details about the decisionmaking process for firing Comey, including the role of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE, who instructed him to write the Comey memo or any conversations he had with Trump.
“He declined to answer in any meaningful way questions about the process that lead to the decision to fire Jim Comey — the preparation of his memo, who told him [to write it],” Coons said, adding that he was asked whether he was directed to produce the memo multiple times.
Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democrats draw red lines in spending fight Manchin puts foot down on key climate provision in spending bill MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, added that Rosenstein “did not answer specifics on virtually any question that was asked.”
But senators — in part reassured by the selection of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor — signaled they were willing to give forgive Rosenstein's tight-lipped stance if it was meant to protect the FBI's investigation.
"As it became clear how little he was willing to talk about, it also became clear how broad this investigation that Mueller is about to undertake actually is," Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K MORE (D-Conn.) told reporters.
Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinManchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema US gymnasts offer scathing assessment of FBI MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said, "there was some frustration” in the room.
“People wanted questions answered ... [but] it's not an unreasonable position for him to take. People were respectful and thankful he showed up. He showed up. He didn’t have to.”
Democrats pointed to Sessions's role as one of their top unanswered questions leaving the briefing. Sessions recused himself earlier this year from the FBI’s investigation but was involved in the decision to fire Comey — a move Democrats argue violated his promise.
“Many of us, including myself, asked that question,” Durbin said. “I can't square Sessions's recusal with his role in dismissing the person who was in charge of the investigation."
Rosenstein will cross the Capitol on Friday to hold an identical meeting with House lawmakers. Democrats also want Sessions to meet with all senators during a separate closed-door briefing.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters that Rosenstein was concerned that any comments he made to senators in the closed-door briefing “would be made public to press, so therefore he felt limited in what he could say.”
Lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees reportedly expressed concerns during the meeting that Mueller’s appointment will interfere with Congress’s ability to investigate election meddling — and possibly preclude testimony by Comey.
Multiple committees have been clamoring for Comey to appear on the Hill to describe both the circumstances surrounding his dismissal and answer questions about any interference in the FBI’s investigation by the White House.
Coons called the impact of the appointment on Comey’s testimony “an open question.”
Both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are conducting their own probes into Russian interference in the election. Congressional investigations often cede jurisdiction to any concurrent federal investigations — a coordinating process called “deconfliction.”
Rosenstein on Wednesday gave former Mueller control of not only the investigation into whether Trump campaign associates coordinated with Russia but also any other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” — like Comey’s dismissal.
Asked about the potential that the competing investigation could limit who appears before their committee, Warner called it a "great question" but that he and Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes NC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) needed more information from Mueller.
“In many ways our purview is broader than what may be some of the Justice Department/FBI investigation," he added, defending the need to continue the congressional investigations.
There was one moment of levity in the breifing, lawmakers said.
One senator reportedly asked Rosenstein, very gravely, “I insist that you answer the one question that is on all our minds: How do we appropriately pronounce your name?”
“Rosen-stine” is correct, he replied.