The Justice Department official overseeing the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump will brief the full U.S. Senate in a classified hearing Thursday afternoon.
The meeting between Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and 100 U.S. senators is certain to be contentious as Democrats and a few Republicans seek answers to Rosenstein’s role in Trump’s decision last week to fire FBI Director James Comey.
The session, which will be private, will take place at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in a special room on Capitol Hill designed for classified briefings known as a sensitive compartmented information facility.
Although the president has the power to remove an FBI director, the decision should not be taken lightly.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced the time for Rosenstein’s appearance Monday. The invitation for Rosenstein to appear before the Senate was made public last week by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a dramatic Senate floor speech.
“The American people deserve answers,” he said at the time. “We need to understand the true nature of the events that led up to Director Comey’s dismissal.”
Among the issues senators will want addressed is whether Rosenstein talked about Comey’s situation with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, either before or after putting together a letter on Comey’s performance for Trump.
Sessions officially recused himself from all elements of the Russia investigation, but he appeared to have participated in the process that resulted in Comey’s dismissal. Comey had become the public face of the FBI’s probe into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia’s election meddling.
If Rosenstein discussed the matter with Sessions, senators will want to know whether he believed, given the recusal, that those conversations were appropriate. There were calls last week that Rosenstein should also consider recusing himself from the Russia investigation, given his apparent role in Comey’s dismissal.
Democrats, including Schumer, will be looking for assurances from Rosenstein that the search for a new director of the FBI will not become a partisan political issue. They will insist on an apolitical, professional investigative type of appointment. The early rumors from the Trump administration indicate that might be a long shot, as officials confirmed that Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, are two of 11 candidates on the White House list.
Gowdy, a former prosecutor, is best known for his role in running the House Benghazi investigation, which is seen by Democrats as a an example of extreme partisanship. Cornyn is the number two Republican in the Senate.
Democrats will also seek assurances that Rosenstein intends to appoint, or at the very least seriously examine appointing, a special counsel to run the investigation. Democrats say that putting a special prosecutor in charge of the case is the best way to prevent the investigation from devolving into a partisan matter.
The dismissal of America’s top cop has been controversial from the moment the news came out late in the afternoon last Tuesday.
For the next 36 hours, presidential spokespeople made the case that Comey had been fired on the recommendation of Rosenstein and Sessions.
But on Thursday, Trump told NBC News that he had planned to fire Comey no matter what Rosenstein recommended in a document he had asked for during a Monday meeting with Rosenstein and Sessions.
“It was set up awhile ago,” Trump said in the NBC interview. “Frankly, I could have waited, but what difference does it make?”
In his memo on Comey, Rosenstein said the FBI chief’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state “was wrong.” He was critical of Comey’s defense of his handling of the email case. “Having refused to admit his errors, the director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions,” Rosenstein wrote.
Trump, however, left little doubt in the NBC interview that Comey’s championing of the investigation into Russia meddling was a driving force in his decision. “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”
Comey first announced the existence of an FBI probe into possible cooperation between Trump’s campaign and Russia during a public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on March 20. Since his firing, the fate of that investigation and others being carried out by Congress has been in question because they were largely dependent on FBI resources for much of their information.