Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein received bipartisan praise for appointing a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that unity barely lasted a full day.
In a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate, Democrats had hoped Rosenstein would explain his decision to draft a legal memo that was used to justify the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Instead, senators griped, Rosenstein was not willing to answer their questions in a satisfactory way.
Democratic senator after senator left the all-hands briefing by Rosenstein Thursday afternoon, held in a secure facility used for reviewing classified information, with a shrug.
“He declined to answer in any meaningful way questions about the process that led to the decision to fire Jim Comey, the preparation of his memo, who he consulted, who told him to prepare it,” said Sen. Chris Coons, who sits on the Senate committee responsible for overseeing the Justice Department. “We must have asked that question 25 different ways.”
“I was disappointed in some of his answers, they were less forthcoming and specific than I think they should have been,” said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “Those answers really need to be given to the American people, in public.“
But one thing was clear: senators told The Daily Beast and other reporters that Rosenstein was aware that the president had already made up his mind to fire Comey when he wrote the memo, raising the question of whether Rosenstein simply acted to create a legal justification for an already-inevitable White House decision.
“[Rosenstein] learned of the decision to fire [Comey] and then he wrote his memo, with his rationale,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking member of the Senate. “There’s some missing pieces here, and he intentionally left these missing pieces—what did the president say May 8 when he said he was going to fire Comey? We don’t know.”
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, formerly a federal prosecutor, said she wasn’t confident Rosenstein was totally forthright, and that he wouldn’t answer all her questions.
“It’s a curious explanation, let’s start with that,” she said, of Rosenstein’s confirmation that he wrote the memo about Comey’s firing knowing full well that the president had already made up his mind.
Asked if Rosenstein compromised his integrity by writing the memo when he knew the president had already decided to fire Comey, Harris paused.
“It certainly leaves unanswered questions,” she said.
Rosenstein found himself thrown under the bus almost immediately after writing his letter recommending Comey’s termination to the president. Initially, the White House said that the decision to fire Comey was based on Rosenstein’s recommendation. Less than 24 hours after that explanation, the president undercut this narrative by saying he would have fired Comey regardless of the Rosenstein letter.
And on Thursday, Trump was back to a version of the original explanation.
“I actually thought when I made that decision—and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein,” Trump said during a joint press conference with the Colombian President. “But when I made that decision, I actually thought it would be a bipartisan decision.”
The decision to fire Comey was anything but a bipartisan decision—if anything it sparked bipartisan alarm about the president’s actions, arguably contributing to the chaos that led Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to lead an independent investigation into possible Trump-Russia ties.
The president has hit back at the investigations, calling them a “witch hunt,” something that few of his own party were willing to defend Thursday. In fact, Rubio rebuffed him.
“We’re a nation of laws. We’re going to follow those laws. There’s now a special counsel, as the law allows. And everyone should fully cooperate with the counsel and support an investigation that is thorough and fair,” Rubio told reporters. “The president is entitled to his opinion. We’re a nation of laws. And that’s not a criticism of the president, that is the reality—that our institutions work.