Rosenstein testified Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the first hearing of Senate Republicans pointing to the origins of the FBI investigation in Russia. Senate Judiciary President Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and close ally of Trump, lobbied Rosenstein to determine whether Mueller should have been named, given that no conspiracy was finally found between the Trump team and Russia. .
“The whole concept that the campaign was colluding with the Russians was not there in August 2017. Do you agree with that general statement?” Graham asked
“I agree with that general statement,” Rosenstein replied.
But the former Justice Department number 2, who oversaw Mueller’s investigation, said there were “reasonable suspicions” to investigate and that the investigation was properly opened, even if no conspiracy was eventually found. Appointing Mueller was the right decision, Rosenstein said.
“I believe at the time, Senator, and I continue to believe that it was the right decision under the circumstances,” Rosenstein said. “I think it is important to establish that an independent investigation found that the Russians attempted to interfere in the elections and that no Americans conspired with them.”
Rosenstein’s testimony is the first in a series of hearings that Graham is planning as part of an investigation that challenges the origins of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump-Russia team, known as Crossfire Hurricane, and the Mueller investigation, which he followed it. Generally, the testimony of the former deputy attorney general who oversaw a special attorney investigating the serving president would be important news, but was overshadowed on Wednesday by the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide protests in response to the George Floyd’s death.
“We have looked at Russia’s role in the elections. Now we will look at the Mueller investigation. And we will look at it carefully,” Graham said. “We are going to see Mueller’s quote in May 2017, to see if there was a crime worth investigating … We are going to talk about how he got off the rails, who is responsible for getting off the rails.”
Graham and Senate President for Homeland Security and Government Affairs Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who launched his own committee investigation into the FBI’s investigation of the Trump team, have separate votes Thursday that would give them broad power to subpoena for documents and testimonies of top Obama administration officials.
In her testimony Wednesday, Rosenstein walked a fine line between praising Mueller’s integrity, accepting that the investigation was not a “hoax” and saying that he could not “respond” to the allegations being investigated.
“We investigated people who are not necessarily guilty,” said Rosenstein. “I had no presumption that these people were guilty of anything.”
Rosenstein acknowledged problems with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders obtained from former Trump adviser Carter Page that were documented by the Justice Department inspector general. When asked if he would re-sign the order renewal in 2017 if he had known what had been revealed since then, Rosenstein said, “No, I would not.”
Rosenstein says Mueller’s investigation was not influenced by political bias
Still, Rosenstein defended Mueller and his investigation, saying he was not influenced by political bias and that he was not targeting Trump. “Based on my conversations with him, I’m pretty sure political bias didn’t go into that investigation,” Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein disputed several Republican allegations launched against Russia’s investigation and Flynn’s prosecution, which is currently being litigated after the Justice Department moved to drop the charges. He disagreed with Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, that Flynn had not lied.
“He certainly did not have the impression that he had not lied. As I think I made quite clear, he had the impression that General Flynn had voluntarily lied to the FBI and the Vice President,” Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein also questioned charges by Republican Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn that Flynn “was a target because he supported Donald Trump.”
“It is important for them to know that I read the presented plea and I know that people concluded that the prosecution may have made a mistake. I have not seen that accusation raised by the attorney general,” Rosenstein said. .
But Rosenstein said he understood the frustrations Trump expressed over the investigation. Trump repeatedly called the investigation a “witch hunt” and a “hoax”, and many of his attacks were directed at Rosenstein.
“I do not consider the investigation to be corrupt, senator, but I certainly understand the president’s frustration, given the result, which in fact was that there was no evidence of conspiracy between Trump’s campaign advisers and the Russians,” Rosenstein said.
Democrats have dismissed the Republican investigations as an effort during the election year to push Trump’s reelection bid and rewrite the history of the Mueller investigation. Senate Democrats charged Wednesday that the Judiciary Committee should focus on addressing more important issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide protests by police, rather than reigniting the Russian investigation.
“Those who tuned in could have expected us to have a hearing on the public health crisis facing the United States, the pandemic that we are fighting every day,” said Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
Democrats rejected the Republican allegations surrounding the investigation, arguing that problems with the FISA order did not affect Mueller’s investigation and that the opposition investigation record cited in the FISA order was not part of Mueller’s final report. .
“Contrary to the president’s claims, IG Horowitz found no evidence of political or anti-Trump bias in the Hurricane Crossfire investigation,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “IG Horowitz confirmed that none of the FISA errors his investigation uncovered cast doubt on ‘any part of the special counsel’s report.'”
Rosenstein signed the FISA renewal
Rosenstein, who voluntarily testified, was not present for the start of the Russia investigation in July 2016, but signed the third renewal of an approved FISA court order for Page – orders the inspector general concluded were undermined by significant problems. .
Republicans pressured Rosenstein to explain why he asked no more questions to uncover problems with the order and verify the information. Rosenstein said it was not his role to verify, but argued that he properly reviewed the request.
“I don’t think they put the stamp on me, senator,” he said during a contentious exchange with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Rosenstein suggested that then acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe could have been more forthcoming with him about what was happening at the FBI surrounding the investigation in May 2017, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The comments prompted McCabe to issue a statement contesting Rosenstein’s characterization.
Many of the main events in Mueller’s investigation occurred under Rosenstein’s watch.
Rosenstein was the top Justice Department official who oversaw the Russians’ allegations of electoral interference and major prosecutions for obstruction and conspiracy by Trump’s advisers, including former campaign president Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, the personal lawyer. from President Michael Cohen, lifelong friend Roger Stone and Flynn
It was Rosenstein’s directive in Mueller’s early months, too, that described how the special counsel should investigate whether Page, Manafort and foreign policy campaign adviser George Papadopoulos colluded with Russian government officials. Mueller’s team found no evidence of any conspiracy between Trump’s associates and Russia, but they did conclude that those inside and associated with the Trump campaign had embraced and encouraged Russian activity that they believed could help Trump win.
Rosenstein also became an important witness to the other half of Mueller’s investigation: documenting the president’s attempts to obstruct the investigation. Trump was not charged with obstruction after Barr and Rosenstein reviewed Mueller’s report, Barr told Congress after receiving Mueller’s findings.
This story has been updated with additional developments on Wednesday.
CNN’s Evan Pérez contributed to this report.