Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony
Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein 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 Sessions recused himself, signed off on the final warrant renewal.
“Why did you let this pile of partisan lies consume the country for two years?” Sen. Ted Cruz (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 Hawley (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.
“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 Graham (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 Whitehouse (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 Mueller 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 Grassley (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.
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 Biden, 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 Comey, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former CIA Director John Brennan, 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 Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr.
Those frustrations spilled out into public view on Wednesday, with several Democrats criticizing Graham during the hearing.
“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 Feinstein (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.”