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Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinRosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Comey argues Trump shouldn't be prosecuted after leaving Oval Office Trump turns his ire toward Cabinet members MORE on Wednesday stepped into the middle of a burgeoning political fight in the Senate over the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

The hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee marked the first time Rosenstein has testified since resigning last year. It was an appearance that grew heated at times as senators grilled the former No. 2 Department of Justice (DOJ) official over the high-profile probe that dominated the first two years of Trump’s presidency.

During the more than three-hour-long hearing, GOP senators unloaded on Rosenstein — at times yelling — with questions about why he did not seek more information on the surveillance warrant applications on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Rosenstein, who oversaw the investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief Manchin flexes muscle in 50-50 Senate Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE recused himself, signed off on the final warrant renewal.

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“Why did you let this pile of partisan lies consume the country for two years?” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz Cruz puts hold on Biden's CIA nominee It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it Senate rejects Cruz effort to block stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants MORE (R-Texas) asked, at one point hitting the dais. "All of this was allowed to go forward under your leadership. ... Either you were complicit in the wrongdoing, which I don't believe was the case, or the performance of your duties was grossly negligent.”

Tensions only escalated from there.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyDeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Chamber of Commerce clarifies stance on lawmakers who voted against election certification Crenshaw pours cold water on 2024 White House bid: 'Something will emerge' MORE (R-Mo.) pressed Rosenstein about his responsibilities in overseeing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application and asked him about being a “rubber stamp,” often interrupting Rosenstein’s responses.

Hawley at one point cut him off when he was trying to explain that he relied on information the FBI gathered, in which an agent swore under oath that the facts were correct, when signing off on a FISA application.

“I know, and that’s why you can’t be held responsible. Everyone at the FBI says they can’t be held responsible, and so at the end of the day, it’s nobody’s fault,” Hawley said.

Rosenstein held his ground, telling Hawley he was being “accountable” by showing up to testify.

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“I’m here being chastised by you. ... Yelling at me is not going to solve the problem,” Rosenstein said.

He also indicated that he would’ve made different decisions if he had all the relevant information at the time.

Rosenstein separately told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Sunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate Georgia DA investigating Trump taps racketeering expert for probe: report MORE (R-S.C.) that he would not have signed off on a final surveillance warrant application for Page if he had known the information that was uncovered in an investigation by the DOJ inspector general, who found 17 significant errors and omissions within the initial warrant application and the three renewals in 2016 and 2017.

While Inspector General Michael Horowitz was critical of DOJ leaders for allowing the errors to be made by teams under their supervision, he also noted in his report that Rosenstein and other department officials “did not have accurate and complete information at the time they approved them.”

While many of the Democrats at Wednesday’s hearing railed against the timing of the Republican-led probe during the coronavirus pandemic, Rosenstein also clashed with Democrats at times, both on the Mueller investigation and on unrelated matters.

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseFeds looking at communications between lawmakers, Capitol rioters: report FBI director commits to providing Senate information after grilling from Democrat Biden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda MORE (D-R.I.) questioned Rosenstein on why the DOJ didn’t respond to questions for the record from members of the committee.

“There is a bin someplace at the FBI and the Department of Justice into which our questions get thrown,” Whitehouse said, lamenting the "incredible shrinking Judiciary Committee."

Still, the appearance largely presented the former DOJ official, who has faced numerous Republican attacks, a chance to defend his record.

Rosenstein stood by his decision to name now-former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE to lead the investigation, which in part examined whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia, as well as his role signing off on the FISA warrants.

At times, he challenged claims about the credibility of the probe.

Rosenstein rebuffed Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyWhite House open to reforming war powers amid bipartisan push Garland's AG nomination delayed by GOP roadblocks National Sheriffs' Association backs Biden pick for key DOJ role MORE (R-Iowa), who asked if the so-called Steele dossier, controversial opposition research against then-candidate Trump, was included in the Page surveillance warrant applications.

"The Steele dossier was not in the FISA, was not submitted to the court. There is information from Steele that is in the application. ... My understanding is that what is in the affidavits is verified,” Rosenstein told Grassley.

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Rosenstein’s testimony marked the first public hearing to stem from Graham’s investigation into Crossfire Hurricane, the name for the FBI's Russia investigation that ultimately did not find evidence that members of the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. Mueller did not make a determination either way on obstruction of justice.

GOP senators in particular want to scrutinize the FISA applications and the surveillance court that approves the secretive warrants used in national security investigations.

Republicans are ramping up their probes into decisions made by the Obama administration, months ahead of an election where Trump will face off against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Fauci predicts high schoolers will receive coronavirus vaccinations this fall Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Graham is scheduled to hold a vote in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday to authorize a subpoena for dozens of Obama-era officials, including former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyWray says FBI not systemically racist John Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges Trump DOJ officials sought to block search of Giuliani records: report MORE, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal Online and frighteningly real: 'A Taste of Armageddon' MORE, other FBI officials related to the probe and related documents. 

The investigation is creating deep divisions on the committee, which has been the scene of high-profile confirmation fights for Trump nominees such as Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump promises to travel to Alaska to campaign against Murkowski Disgraced former media darling Andrew Cuomo must resign, but more for this reason Justices hear sparring over scope of safeguards for minority voters MORE and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrPolitics in the Department of Justice can be a good thing Majority of Republicans say 2020 election was invalid: poll Biden administration withdraws from Connecticut transgender athlete case MORE

Those frustrations spilled out into public view on Wednesday, with several Democrats criticizing Graham during the hearing.

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“It appears that Senate Republicans now plan to spend the next several months bolstering the president’s attack on the Russia investigation and his Democratic nominee, Democrat Joe Biden,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats worry Senate will be graveyard for Biden agenda Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget China has already infiltrated America's institutions MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel.

Republicans are increasingly skeptical of Mueller’s 22-month probe and the FBI investigation that predated it, aligning themselves with Trump and his allies who have characterized the investigations as a “witch hunt.”

Horowitz has testified that the probe was adequately predicated and that he found no testimonial or documentary evidence of political bias or other improper motivation driving the FBI’s decision to open the Russia investigation. Such a conclusion, however, undercuts the arguments made by Trump and his allies about the impropriety of the investigation.

Rosenstein also defended Mueller and his team on Wednesday, saying he was “fairly confident that the political bias did not enter into that investigation.”

He separately told Feinstein that while he could understand Trump’s “frustration,” he does “not believe the investigation was a hoax.”