Rosenstein Defends Mueller Appointment to Probe 2016 Election Meddling

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — While he acknowledged FBI shortcomings, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday defended his decision to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel, testifying in a Senate panel’s probe into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

“I believed at the time — and I still believe — it was the right decision under the circumstances,” Rosenstein told senators Wednesday of his decision to appoint Mueller. “I recognize people can criticize me for it, that’s the consequence of being in these jobs, you make decisions and then you get criticized for them. But I believe it was the right decision at the time.”

Rosenstein appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee today as the first witness in the panel’s inquiry into how the FBI launched its investigation, dubbed Crossfire Hurricane, into allegations that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russian government in the 2016 election. 

Since the Mueller probe wrapped up last year, Republicans have turned their focus to examining the origins of the investigation, which Trump’s most vocal defenders have claimed was launched to discredit the president and his incoming administration.

That contention took a hit in December when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report finding Crossfire Hurricane had valid underpinning. Horowitz did, however, fault the FBI for how it handled surveillance warrants on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, finding 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” on the applications.

Rosenstein told the committee on Wednesday he would not have signed off on an application to renew surveillance of Page if he had known of the faults that the inspector general’s report identified. He said, while he signed the application and takes ultimate accountability for its approval, it was the responsibility of the agents who prepared the application to ensure the information supporting it was accurate.

His role, Rosenstein explained, was to certify lower-level employees followed appropriate procedures.

Faced with fiery questions from Senator Josh Hawley about his approval of the Page surveillance application, Rosenstein said he was troubled by what Horowitz’s report revealed, but noted he is no longer in a position to make necessary changes going forward.

“I certainly am accountable for it, but in order to solve this problem — yelling at me is not going to solve the problem,” Rosenstein said. “We need to figure out what happened — did people engage in misconduct, are there systemic problems — so we can fix them and it won’t happen again.” 

Responding to questions from Senator Lindsey Graham, Rosenstein agreed that, by the time he issued a memo in August 2017 detailing the scope of Mueller’s investigation, there was no evidence the Trump campaign was working with the Russian government. 

“The point is the whole concept that the campaign was colluding with the Russians, there was no there there in August 2017,” Graham said to Rosenstein. “Do you agree with that general statement or not?”

“I agree with that general statement,” Rosenstein responded.

Rosenstein served as deputy attorney general until May of last year and appointed Mueller to look into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and allegations of collusion with the Trump campaign.

Thrust into the spotlight of overseeing the probe that dominated Washington for the better part of two years after the recusal of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rosenstein became the frequent target of President Donald Trump and his allies. 

With Rosenstein now out of government and working in private practice, the hearing largely served as a chance for lawmakers to relitigate the Mueller investigation and retread allegations of political bias at the Justice Department.

“By any measure, what the Obama-Biden administration did in 2016 and 2017 makes everything Richard Nixon even contemplated pale in comparison,” Senator Ted Cruz said Wednesday.

Horowitz’s report found no evidence political bias infected the decision to open the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, or that the probe’s operations were impacted by texts and emails between senior FBI officials that were hostile toward Trump.

In making their case that the probe was tainted with political bias, Republicans also grilled Rosenstein on the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition.

Flynn has sought to withdraw the plea on the grounds of government misconduct, and the Justice Department has moved to drop the case, saying the FBI did not have sufficient reason to conduct the interview in where he made the alleged false statements.

Rosenstein said Wednesday that the facts he had at the time — namely that Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI about his communications with Kislyak — supported that view that the Flynn investigation was appropriate. But he acknowledged there were details that have since come out about the prosecution that he was not aware of when he was in office.

“I fully appreciate your concern and obviously you always wish you could have done more,” Rosenstein told Cruz about the Flynn case. “But we did have 70,000 cases filed that year. I devoted more attention to this case than to anything else, but I still didn’t know everything.” 

Rosenstein reminded senators several times during the hearing that he has now been out of government for more than a year and so does not have access to all of the information that might eventually come out about the Russia investigation.

To Democrats, the hearing and the committee investigation itself is an effort to recycle old political arguments at the expense of other work the panel could be doing related to the coronavirus pandemic or criminal-justice reform.

“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,” Senator Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said. “How can these aims be the proper use of this committee’s time?” 

Democrats also routinely stepped in to defend Mueller’s investigation, noting it resulted in the indictments of 34 people, including multiple people connected to the Trump campaign, and revealed details about Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. 

“There is simply no question that this investigation was justified,” Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., said. “And there’s simply no question that foreign interference was a threat to our elections in [2016] and remains one today.”

In response to questions from Democrats on the panel, Rosenstein on several occasions backed the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election and defended Mueller’s investigation as appropriate. 

Mueller’s highly anticipated report did not find evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and individuals with ties to the Kremlin, though it did conclude the campaign welcomed Russian interference as helpful to Trump’s election chances. 

The report did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice, in part citing Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president.

Graham plans for the committee to vote Thursday on authorization for up to 53 subpoenas for current and former officials in the Justice Department and other federal agencies as part of the committee’s probe into to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Democrats will try and amend the authorization for subpoenas to include people connected to Trump and the campaign, including Michael Cohen.

“This is a sad episode in the history of the FBI,” Graham said Wednesday. “There was no there there in August 2017. It may not bother you, but it bothers us. And I hope it will bother the American people and we’ll fix it.”

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