WASHINGTON (CN) – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told senators in a closed-door briefing on Thursday that he knew former FBI Director James Comey was going to be fired before he wrote a memo that justified the firing, multiple senators said after the briefing.
After emerging from an all-senators briefing with Rosenstein on Thursday afternoon, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Rosenstein was generally careful in his meeting with senators but for the revelation, which contradicts the White House’s original explanation for the firing.
“He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to him writing the memo,” McCaskill told reporters Thursday.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., confirmed McCaskill’s statement after they came out of the meeting minutes after McCaskill, though Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., would not say Rosenstein went that far.
“I’m not sure if he addressed that with the level of clarity that most people wanted to hear,” Rubio told reporters.
After announcing Comey’s firing, the White House publicly released a memo from Rosenstein saying Comey was fired in large part because of his mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
However, President Donald Trump quickly unraveled the White House’s official position in an interview with NBC when he said he was going to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation he received from Rosenstein.
Rosenstein’s meeting with senators was scheduled shortly after Comey’s firing and arranged at the request of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
The meeting took on greater importance on Wednesday, when Rosenstein decided to appoint former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
Congress has multiple active investigations into Russian interference in the election, most notably in the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Republicans had expressed concern that a special counsel would make it more difficult for those investigations to go forward freely, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., repeated those concerns after meeting with Rosenstein.
The congressional investigations do not have the powers of a criminal investigation, but Graham said the special counsel’s seems to be a criminal one.
“It was a counterintelligence investigation before now, it seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation,” Graham said.
Graham was clear, however, that Rosenstein did not explicitly say Mueller’s investigation is a criminal one.
Graham said this could make it more difficult for the congressional committees to get witnesses to cooperate in their investigations, as the witnesses would have a right not to incriminate themselves in a criminal inquiry.
Graham, who leads the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, said this could mean Comey might not testify publicly before his committee as they had hoped.
“I’ve always believed that a counterintelligence investigation did not need a special prosecutor or counsel, a criminal investigation might,” Graham said. “The deputy attorney general decided to appoint a special counsel and one of the results of that [is] the ability of Congress to call people who may be witnesses in an investigation conducted by Mr. Mueller is going to severely restrict what we can do.”
In addition to Graham’s committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Oversight Committee have tried to set up public hearings with Comey.