Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in charge of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, will meet with Trump on Thursday to discuss future.
WASHINGTON – Former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, a key player in the sprawling Russia investigation that cast a cloud over much of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, defended his oversight of the probe Wednesday while acknowledging flaws in the FBI’s surveillance process.
“Senators, whenever agents or prosecutors make serious mistakes or engage in misconduct, the Department of Justice must take remedial action. And if existing policies fall short, those policies need to be changed,” Rosenstein said in his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ultimately, Rosenstein acknowledged he is responsible for the missteps that happened in the early days of the Russia investigation.
“I’m accountable. I feel accountable … I think the issue is, ‘How do we fix the problem?'” Rosenstein said.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., invited Rosenstein in the first of what he said would be a series of hearings on the Russia investigation. Rosenstein’s testimony marks the first time his handling of the probe is publicly scrutinized since he left the Justice Department last year.
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Trump and his allies have sought to frame the entire Russia investigation as a hoax and a witch hunt against the president, seizing on some aspects of Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s election meddling and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
An inspector general’s report offered a blistering account of the FBI’s handling of multiple applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page during the early months of the Russia probe in 2016 and early 2017.
The inspector general found more than a dozen inaccuracies and misstatements in all four applications to wiretap Page. Investigators omitted information that contradicted their suspicions and inflated the justification to keep monitoring Page – even as they gathered information that weakened the probable cause to continue with the surveillance.
The inspector general, though, found the broader Russia probe was legally justified and there was no evidence political bias played a role.
Rosenstein, who signed off on one of the applications to wiretap Page, said every application he approved “appeared to be justified.” “The FBI was supposed to be following protocols to ensure that every fact was verified,” Rosenstein said, acknowledging that the FBI failed to do so.
Rosenstein said knowing now of the errors and misstatements, he would not have signed off on the application.
During the hearing, Republicans renewed attacks on the Russia investigation and questioned whether the inquiry – which special counsel Robert Mueller took over in May 2017 – should have continued for two years, given the FBI’s missteps in the beginning.
Rod Rosenstein had an expressionless look as he stood behind William Barr while he briefed reporters on the Mueller report.
Democrats portrayed the hearing as a tired re-litigation of Mueller’s findings, which were made public last year. They criticized Republicans for holding a hearing on an investigation that’s been concluded at a time of a public health crisis and racial unrest.
Rosenstein emerged as a central figure during the tumultuous first months of Trump’s presidency, when he and former attorney general Jeff Sessions had recommended the May 2017 firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. Comey, at the time, was overseeing Crossfire Hurricane.
Rosenstein later appointed Mueller to take over the Russia probe, igniting Trump’s bitter campaign against his own Justice Department. In his opening statement, Rosenstein defended his appointment of Mueller, a task that fell on him after Sessions recused because of his ties to the Trump campaign.
It “was the best way to complete the investigation appropriately and promote public confidence in its conclusions,” Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein said he does not believe the Mueller probe was a hoax and said he had talked to the special counsel about ensuring political bias did not interfere with the investigation.
“I have confidence in Mr. Mueller’s integrity,” Rosenstein said, adding later: “I do not believe that Mr. Mueller was trying to get rid of the president.”
Rosenstein, however, took a jab at Andrew McCabe, telling senators the former FBI deputy director was not “fully candid” with him. Rosenstein said that when he began overseeing the Russia investigation in 2017, McCabe should’ve immediately disclosed to him that Comey had written memos about his meetings with Trump.
In a statement, McCabe disputed Rosenstein’s characterization, saying he briefed the former deputy attorney general on the memos days after he recommended Comey’s firing. McCabe also denied misleading Rosenstein about the FBI’s concerns regarding the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia.
“Mr. Rosenstein approved of, and suggested ways to enhance, our investigation of the President,” McCabe said.
Mueller’s two-year investigation found that the Kremlin orchestrated a “sweeping and systematic” campaign to help Trump win the White House, and that the president and his aides were eager beneficiaries of the effort. The probe, however, did not find enough evidence that Trump or members of his campaign conspired with Russia.
Rosenstein said the investigation’s findings don’t mean that Russia is on any candidate’s side.
“Russia is on Russia’s side,” said Rosenstein, who resigned in April 2019, two years after he appointed Mueller.
The president has sought to frame the investigation’s findings as a complete exoneration of him. But Mueller said his investigation did not exonerate Trump. The former special counsel’s voluminous report, released a year ago, detailed several instances of possible obstruction of justice – including an effort to fire Mueller – during the Russia investigation.
Attorney General William Barr has appointed an outside federal prosecutor to review the origins of the Russia inquiry and the FBI’s surveillance activities.
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