In his opening statement, which was obtained by POLITICO in advance of his Senate testimony, Rosenstein said it was necessary to appoint a special counsel after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because “I was concerned that the public would not have confidence in the investigation.”
He said Comey’s immediate replacement atop the FBI, Andrew McCabe, was “not the right person to lead” that probe. He later said McCabe was “not fully candid with me” and “certainly wasn’t forthcoming,” in particular because McCabe did not share with him Comey’s memos about his conversations with Trump for at least a week after becoming acting director.
“I decided that appointing a Special Counsel was the best way to complete the investigation appropriately and promote public confidence in its conclusions,” Rosenstein said.
The hearing is the first of what is likely to be several as part of the committee’s Republican-led investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation. Trump has cheered the probe, while Democrats have said it is an improper use of the Senate’s oversight authority — and one intended to boost the president’s re-election bid.
The former Justice Department No. 2 also defended his role as the supervisor of Mueller’s investigation, telling senators that he “established a supervisory chain of command” and that he and “highly qualified department attorneys” regularly met with Mueller’s team to review investigate recommendations and “to approve significant steps.”
His remarks are meant to reassure Republicans in particular, who have criticized the appointment of a special counsel in light of Mueller’s findings — namely, that he could not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
Rosenstein also defended his role in efforts to seek surveillance warrants on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. Those applications, which were approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, were the subject of an inspector general investigation which found that there were significant errors and omissions in the applications.
In his opening statement, Rosenstein laid the blame on the FBI, essentially asserting that he was duped.
“Every application that I approved appeared to be justified based on the facts it alleged, and the FBI was supposed to be following protocols to ensure that every fact was verified,” he said, later adding that he would not have signed the fourth and final application to surveil Page if he knew what he knows today.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the committee, lambasted FBI leadership over the genesis and management of the probe into Russian election interference.
“There are millions of Americans pretty upset about this,” Graham said. “There are people on our side of the aisle who believe that this investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, was one of the most corrupt, biased criminal investigations in the history of the FBI, and we would like to see something done about it.”
“We’re going to be talking about how it got off the rails, who’s responsible for it getting off the rails, and making sure that they’re punished appropriately and the system is changed so that in the future no other candidate for president, no other sitting president has to go through this,” he added.
Graham zeroed in on the use of the Steele dossier — a series of reports from a former British intelligence officer that he produced while working for a firm contracting with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — in an FBI application to surveil Page.
“What kind of country is this?” Graham asked. “What happens to people who do that?”
Graham also pressed Rosenstein on a memo he wrote in August 2017 detailing the scope of Mueller’s probe. When he wrote the memo, Rosenstein said, the department had “suspicions” about potential coordination between members of Trump World and the Kremlin. Mueller ultimately found no evidence of such coordination.
“There was no there there in August 2017,” Graham said, arguing that Mueller’s team defined the scope of their own investigation. “Do you agree with that general statement or not?”
“I agree with that general statement,” Rosenstein replied.