Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says that in retrospect, he would not have signed the fourth application renewing the FBI's surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. In a contentious hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the origins of the government's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Rosenstein fielded questions from senators about his role in the probe.
Rosenstein, who signed the last Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court application for Page, was asked by committee chairman Lindsey Graham if he knew in June 2017 what he knows now, would he have signed that final application to wiretap Page? Rosenstein replied that he would not have. In late 2019, a Justice Department watchdog identified several "inaccuracies and omissions" in the FISA applications submitted by the FBI.
However, Rosenstein also said that at the time, the government had not yet concluded Trump associates did not conspire with Russia, that there was still "reasonable suspicion."
The former deputy attorney general also defended his decision to appoint a special counsel to scrutinize ties between Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, telling senators Wednesday, "I decided that appointing a special counsel was the best way to complete the investigation appropriately and promote public confidence in its conclusions."
He discussed fired Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who took over the bureau's Russia investigation after FBI Director James Comey was fired, telling senators that McCabe was "not fully candid" and "certainly wasn't forthcoming." In particular, he said that McCabe did not tell him about Comey's memos documenting his conversations with the president "for at least a week after he became acting director despite the fact that we had repeated conversations focusing on this investigation."
In a statement, McCabe soon denied Rosenstein's testimony about him: "Mr. Rosenstein's claims to have been misled by me, or anyone from the FBI, regarding our concerns about President Trump and the Trump campaign's interactions with Russia are completely false. Mr. Rosenstein approved of, and suggested ways to enhance, our investigation of the President. Further, I personally briefed Mr. Rosenstein on Jim Comey's memos describing his interactions with the President mere days after Mr. Rosenstein wrote the memo firing Jim Comey."
Under questioning by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, Rosenstein said that he did not believe the Mueller investigation was a "hoax," as the president often refers to it, and that every step he approved in the probe was what he believed to be legitimate. And he told Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, also a Democrat, that while there were mistakes in the way the FBI carried out the investigation, he concurs with the intelligence community's assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the first in a series of oversight hearings that coincide with accelerated election-year efforts to review the FBI's Russia investigation.
Republican allies of the president have taken fresh aim in recent months at that investigation and at the law enforcement and intelligence officials who conducted it. They point to newly declassified information to allege that Trump and his associates were unfairly pursued, and are at time advancing unsupported theories against Obama administration officials. They also are claiming vindication from the Justice Department's decision to drop its case against Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser.
The hearing, called by Graham, is also a GOP effort to refocus public attention on the Russia investigation that comes as Mr. Trump is facing public scrutiny over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and unrest in American cities set off by the death of George Floyd.
Though Rosenstein was a Trump appointee, he has often been regarded with suspicion by many supporters of the president, and Mr. Trump himself, for his role in the Russia investigation. Rosenstein's fate was most dramatically in limbo in September 2018 after the New York Times reported that he had floated the idea of wearing a wire inside the White House to record conversations with Mr. Trump, and had talked about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office. Rosenstein denied this story in the hearing Wednesday when he was asked about it by Hawaii Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono.
"I did not suggest or hint at secretly recording President Trump," Rosenstein replied.
He also said he "never in any way suggested that the president should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment."
Rosenstein assumed oversight of the Russia investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew from the inquiry. Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel and then spent most of the next two years supervising his work, including approving key decisions, testifying in his defense and announcing criminal charges against Russians.
Mueller's report last year detailed significant contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign but did not allege a criminal conspiracy to sway the election. It examined about a dozen episodes for potential obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump, but did not reach a conclusion as to whether he broke the law, in part because Justice Department policy bars the indictment of sitting presidents.
Flynn admitted lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period regarding U.S. sanctions. The Justice Department moved to dismiss the case last month, saying Flynn's contacts with the diplomat were entirely appropriate and that the FBI had insufficient basis to interview him.
Graham has also questioned whether Mueller should have been appointed at all.
Catherine Herridge, John Nolen and Paula Reid contributed to this report.