Former U.S. deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein told lawmakers Wednesday that he would not have approved an FBI surveillance application for a former Trump campaign aide during the Russia investigation had he known at the time about the problems that have since been revealed.
Rosenstein’s comments amounted to a striking concession that law enforcement officials made mistakes as they scrutinized ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. But even as he acknowledged the legitimacy of anger from Trump and his allies, he defended his appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the probe and affirmed his support for the conclusion that Russia interfered but did not criminally conspire with associates of the Trump campaign.
“I do not consider the investigation to be corrupt, but I understand the president’s frustration given the outcome that there was no evidence” of a conspiracy between the campaign and Russia, Rosenstein said.
His appearance before the Senate’s judiciary committee was the first in a series of oversight hearings to scrutinize the FBI’s Russia investigation and the law enforcement officials involved. The judiciary committee on Thursday plans to vote on whether to authorize subpoenas for more than 50 current and former officials involved in investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election, including former FBI director James Comey and former CIA director John Brennan.
The president’s allies have taken fresh aim at the Russia investigation over the last year, pointing to newly declassified information to allege that Trump and his associates were unfairly pursued. They have also claimed vindication from the Justice Department’s decision to dismiss the case against ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, and at times advanced unsupported theories against Obama administration officials.
“We’re going to look backward so we can move forward,” committee chairman Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in explaining the purpose for the hearings. “If you don’t like Trump, fine, but this is not about Trump or not liking Trump. This is about moving forward as a nation.”
But at the very end of the hearing, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal openly questioned Graham on whether the hearing had produced significant information that hadn’t been already revealed in a series of congressional committee hearings, news reports, a review by the Justice Department’s inspector general and Mueller’s final report.
Partisan purposes, Democrats allege
Democrats lamented the hearing’s politically charged and retrospective nature, saying Republicans were attempting to refocus attention away from more urgent problems, including unrest in cities set off by the death of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic.
“This hearing wastes this committee’s time in a blatant effort to support the president’s conspiracy theories and to help the president’s re-election,” said Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
Hirono asked Rosenstein about an eyebrow-raising headline from the New York Times in 2018, a report that indicated he had suggested secretly recording Trump in the wake of Comey’s firing in the spring of 2017 and also discussed with other officials the 25th Amendment, which outlines the process for removing a president if he is unfit for office.
“I did not suggest or hint at secretly recording Mr. Trump,” Rosenstein testified on Wednesday.
“I have never in any way suggested the president should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment,” he added.
The hearing delved into detail in two areas that Trump allies have recently seized on to challenge the conduct of law enforcement. Rosenstein was pressed repeatedly about his decision to sign off on the fourth and final application for a warrant to eavesdrop on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page on suspicion that he was a Russian agent. Page has denied wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime, and a Justice Department inspector general report identified significant errors and omissions in each of the applications submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The watchdog said the FBI relied in part for its applications on a dossier of information compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, whose research was funded by a lawyer close to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Asked by Graham if he would have signed the warrant application knowing what he knows now, Rosenstein replied, “No, I would not.”
Not all Republicans pleased with Rosenstein
The inspector general said senior Justice Department officials were given incomplete information by the FBI. Rosenstein said he was unaware of the problems when he signed off on the final warrant application and that “every application that I approved appeared to be justified based on the facts it alleged,” an answer that did not satisfy Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who blasted the former official for moving ahead on the warrants.
Though Rosenstein was a Trump appointee, he has often been regarded with suspicion by many supporters of the president, and Trump himself, for his role in the Russia investigation. Rosenstein assumed oversight of the Russia investigation after then-attorney general Jeff Sessions withdrew from the inquiry.
Rosenstein, who called Sessions “one of the most principled people in Washington” at the hearing, appointed Mueller and spent most of the next two years supervising his work.
Mueller’s investigation led to the indictments of over 30 individuals, mostly Russian but also six men with connections to Trump. Mueller’s final report, released last year, detailed significant contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign. It did not allege a criminal conspiracy, but outlined several instances in which the campaign welcomed attempts by Russians and other outside actors, including WikiLeaks, to produce damaging information on Trump opponent Hillary Clinton.
It examined about a dozen episodes for potential obstruction of justice by Trump. The report did not reach a conclusion as to whether Trump broke the law, but in an exchange with a Republican congressman in his lone appearance on Capitol Hill to testify about his report, Mueller said he believed there was enough evidence to charge Trump with a crime — specifically, obstruction of justice — had he not been president.
Historical guidance from the Justice Department has asserted that a sitting president cannot be indicted.