Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Republicans clash in fiery hearing
House Republicans sharply took aim Thursday at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in a heated hearing that came at the same time the House passed a resolution rebuking Rosenstein and the Justice Department.
Republicans clashed with Rosenstein over a number of issues, from the text messages of embattled FBI agent Peter Strzok and the start of the Mueller probe to accusations that Rosenstein was withholding information from Congress and threatening congressional aides.
During the hearing, the House passed a resolution along party lines that gave the Justice Department seven days to comply with House Republican subpoenas related to the Russia investigation and Hillary Clinton email probe — with the threat of contempt and impeachment looming as the Republicans’ next move.
Inside the hearing room, Rosenstein got particularly fiery with Rep. Jim Jordan, the conservative House Freedom Caucus leader who has been one of the most vocal critics of both Rosenstein and Mueller.
“Mr. Rosenstein, we have caught you hiding information from Congress,” Jordan charged.
“Your use of this to attack me personally is deeply wrong,” Rosenstein responded. “When you find some problem with the production or with questions, it doesn’t mean that I’m personally trying to conceal something from you.”
The hearing was a public airing of the simmering tensions that have roiled Republicans and Democrats for the past year as they’ve battled over the investigations into Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia and the Republican allegations of FBI misconduct.
Jordan kept barreling into Rosenstein, prompting several protests from Democrats that he was cutting off the deputy attorney general.
“Mr. Rosenstein, did you threaten staffers on the House Intelligence Committee?” Jordan asked, referring to a report earlier this month that staff felt “personally attacked” by Rosenstein.
“Media reports are mistaken,” Rosenstein responded.
“Did you threaten to subpoena their calls and emails?” Jordan countered.
“No sir, and there’s no way to subpoena phone calls,” Rosenstein responded, prompting some laughter from the room.
Justice Department document fight escalates
The House passed a resolution Thursday 226 to 183 demanding that the Justice Department fully comply with subpoenas from the Judiciary and Intelligence committees by July 6. Conservatives have suggested that the resolution is the last step before taking more drastic measures against Rosenstein, either holding him in contempt or even impeaching him.
Thursday’s hearing was actually scheduled to discuss the Justice Department inspector general report into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, but much of the focus was on the special counsel and the congressional subpoenas.
At the hearing, Rosenstein argued that the House was “mistaken” that the Justice Department wasn’t trying to comply with the subpoenas from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, but that did not stop the party line vote.
Rosenstein vowed that the Congress would not hold him in contempt.
“We are not in contempt of this Congress,” Rosenstein said. “We are not going to be in contempt of this Congress.”
FBI Director Chris Wray, who was also testifying at Thursday’s hearing, offered a bemused explanation for the threats of contempt.
“Certainly when I was minding my own business in private practice in Atlanta, I didn’t think I was going to be spending the first 10 months of my job staring down the barrel of a contempt citation for … conduct that occurred long before I even thought about being FBI director,” he said.
Wray told the committee that 880,000 pages of documents had been produced, and 100 staffers were working on fulfilling the remaining documents around the clock.
Democrats accuse GOP of undermining Mueller
Democrats have charged that Republicans are making document requests for sensitive materials about ongoing investigations that cannot be shared in order to give Trump a pretext for firing Rosenstein, who supervises the Mueller probe.
“As part of their coordinated and determined effort to undermine the special counsel’s investigation, Republicans are requesting documents they know they cannot have,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel.
In between the combative testimony with Republicans, the committee’s Democrats gave Rosenstein and Wray an opportunity to defend themselves.
“Mr. Rosenstein, are you a Democrat?” asked Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who was referencing Trump’s tweets claiming “13 angry Democrats” on the Mueller team.
“I’m not a Democrat, and I’m not angry,” Rosenstein said.
Gutierrez accused Republicans of trying to remove Rosenstein from office. “They want to impeach you. They want to indict you. They want to get rid of you,” he said, wishing Rosenstein “good luck.”
Debating the Mueller probe
The Mueller investigation loomed large over Thursday’s hearing, with Republicans pointing to Strzok’s anti-Trump text messages to suggest the Mueller probe was tainted. Strzok, who was interviewed behind closed doors on Wednesday, was an investigator for the Clinton and Russia probes, and he was on Mueller’s team before he was dismissed when his texts were discovered.
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina had sharp words about the Mueller investigation, urging him to “finish it the hell up.”
“Russia isn’t being hurt by this investigation right now. We are. This country is being hurt by it,” Gowdy said. “We need to see the evidence. If you have evidence of wrongdoing by any member of the Trump campaign, present it to the damn grand jury. If you have evidence that this president acted inappropriately, present it to the American people.”
Rosenstein responded that he wanted Mueller to finish the investigation in an appropriate fashion.
“I’ve heard suggestions that we should just close the investigation. I think the best thing we could do is finish it appropriately, and reach a conclusion,” Rosenstein said. “And I certainly agree with you, sir, that people should not jump to conclusions without seeing the evidence. I’ve been the victim of fake news attacks myself so I’m sympathetic.”
Republicans also took aim at how Mueller handled Strzok’s text messages, pressing Rosenstein about whether Mueller properly investigated whether the evidence Strzok had collected was tainted.
GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas said that Strzok told the committees Wednesday that he was removed from the special counsel’s team after a 15- to 30-minute conversation in which he was not asked about whether he acted on the bias exhibited.
And several Republicans took aim at Rosenstein’s own actions, including whether he appropriately signed a foreign surveillance warrant renewal for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, and whether Rosenstein should be recused from the Mueller probe.
“I can assure you,” he told Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, “that if it were appropriate for me to recuse, I would be more than happy to do so and let somebody else handle this. But It is my responsibility to do it.”
More hearings on tap
Both Rosenstein and Wray made accommodations to attend Thursday’s hearing, which did not get the normal seven-days notice under committee rules.
Rosenstein missed a deputy Cabinet member meeting on Thursday morning, according to a source familiar. If he stays for a full day, he will miss another deputies meeting convened by the national security council where the Justice Department is the lead component on a matter of critical national security concern. And he also had to cancel a trip to Georgia on a law enforcement issue.
Wray also came back early from a West Coast trip meeting with special agents in charge, the source said.
Thursday’s hearing isn’t going to be the last high-profile showdown with FBI and Justice Department officials either.
The House Judiciary and Oversight Committees are expected to request Strzok appear for a public hearing next month, according to a source familiar with the committees plans — something lawmakers on both sides are clamoring for.
And the committees also expect next month to interview FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who exchanged the texts with Strzok during an affair, according to the source.
Lawyers for Strzok and Page declined to comment.
This story has been updated with developments throughout the day.