Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended his actions in the Russia probe during Senate testimony Wednesday — including his appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller — while suggesting the FBI should shoulder the blame over since-exposed misconduct related to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants.
Rosenstein appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as the first witness to testify as part of the panel’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe.
Rosenstein, in prepared remarks, noted that “one of the most important matters” during his time at the Justice Department as deputy attorney general was the “investigation of Russian election influence schemes.”
“Attorney General Sessions had complied with a legal obligation to recuse himself from that investigation,” Rosenstein is expected to say, referring to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the probe due to his involvement with the Trump campaign in 2016. “As a result of events that followed the departure of the FBI Director, I was concerned that the public would not have confidence in the investigation and that the acting FBI Director was not the right person to lead it.” Rosenstein had recommended Trump remove James Comey as director, effectively making his deputy, Andrew McCabe, the leader of the bureau.
“I decided that appointing a Special Counsel was the best way to complete the investigation appropriately and promote public confidence in its conclusions,” Rosenstein will say, noting that the appointment of Mueller was “consistent with Department of Justice precedent.”
“I asked the Special Counsel to review each criminal allegation the FBI considered relevant to Russian election influence operations and recommended whether to close the matter; investigate because it might be relevant to Russian election meddling; or refer the matter to another prosecutor,” Rosenstein explained in his remarks, noting that he ensured that Mueller had to go through a “supervisory chain of command” with “highly qualified” DOJ attorneys and officials.
Rosenstein also is expected to defend his actions related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Rosenstein has faced criticism from Republicans over the FISA warrant and renewals to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Rosenstein signed to approve one of the renewals of that warrant.
But Rosenstein defended his role and is expected to say that “every application I approved appeared to be justified based on the facts it alleged.” Rosenstein implicitly pointed the finger at the FBI for since-revealed problems in that process.
“The FBI was supposed to be following protocols to ensure that every fact was verified,” Rosenstein will say, going on to cite Justice Department inspector general findings released last year that the FBI actually “was not following the written protocols, and that ‘significant errors’ appeared in applications filed in connection with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”
“Crossfire Hurricane” is the FBI’s internal code name for the bureau’s original investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign were colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. That investigation was launched by the FBI in July 2016. Mueller’s team eventually announced that it found no evidence of criminal conspiracy or coordination.
Rosenstein is also expected to stay that “whenever agents or prosecutors make serious mistakes or engage in misconduct,” the DOJ “must take remedial action.”
“Ensuring the integrity of governmental processes is essential to public confidence in the rule of law,” Rosenstein will say.
Rosenstein is the first witness as part of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Russia probe review.
Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham last month outlined the parameters for that investigation, which included, among other things “whether Robert Mueller should have ever been appointed as special counsel.”
Rosenstein, in May 2017, appointed Mueller as special counsel.
Rosenstein also penned the “scope memo” for Mueller’s investigation in August 2017, which outlined the authority of Mueller. Earlier this month, the memo was released in full, and revealed for the first time that Mueller’s authority went significantly beyond what was previously known.
Previously, it had been revealed that in May 2017, Rosenstein authorized Mueller to probe “i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; [and] iii) any other matters within the scope of [obstruction of justice laws].”
But, Rosenstein’s later August 2017 scope memo had remained largely redacted. The newly released version of the document makes clear that Rosenstein didn’t hesitate to authorize a probe into the Trump team that extended beyond general Russian interference efforts.
The newly released version of the 2017 scope memo further makes clear that Mueller could look into whether Michael Flynn “committed a crime or crimes by engaging in conversations with Russian government officials during the period of the Trump transition.”
Additionally, the scope memo stated that Mueller was charged specifically with investigating whether several former Trump officials — including Carter Page, Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort — had “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States.”
Meanwhile, Rosenstein’s appearance comes just one day before the committee votes on potential subpoenas for documents and testimony from top Obama officials.
The potential subpoenas would cover documents, communications and witness testimony in a public setting or behind closed doors for any “current or former executive branch official or employee involved in the ‘Crossfire Hurricane’ investigation.”
Graham, meanwhile, is seeking testimony from former FBI Director James Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and others.
Graham announced earlier this month that his investigation would specifically focus on unmasking and abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It comes amid swirling controversies surrounding the unmasking of Flynn’s name in intelligence reports, as well as the DOJ’s effort to drop the Flynn case citing problems with the FBI’s handling of it.
Graham previously said that his panel will “begin holding multiple, in-depth congressional hearings regarding all things related to Crossfire Hurricane starting in early June