(CNN) — Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will be in the hot seat Wednesday testifying before the Judiciary Committee in Senate Republicans’ first hearing taking aim at the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Rosenstein is expected to face pointed questions from Republicans about problems with the foreign surveillance warrant obtained on a former Trump adviser, his decision to appoint former special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate President Donald Trump and a recently declassified 2017 memo he wrote setting the scope of Mueller’s probe.
The election-year testimony of Trump’s former deputy attorney general, who authorized a special counsel probe into the President, would ordinarily be a major news story, but it’s likely to be overshadowed Wednesday by the coronavirus pandemic and the protests across the country over the death of George Floyd.
Still, the FBI’s Russia investigation is likely to be campaign fodder for the general election, as Trump’s campaign and congressional Republicans have turned their attention to former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive 2020 opponent.
Rosenstein’s testimony is the first in a series of hearings that Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is planning as part of a probe challenging the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s team and Russia, known as Crossfire Hurricane, and the Mueller probe, which followed it.
Graham and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who has launched his own committee probe into the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s team, are holding separate votes Thursday that would give them wide-ranging subpoena power for documents and testimony of top Obama administration officials.
Democrats charge that Republicans should be focused on addressing more important issues, like the Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide protests over policing, rather than relitigating the Russia probe. But Republicans argue their investigations are necessary in light of the abuses uncovered by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants obtained on former Trump adviser Carter Page.
Still, Democrats may press Rosenstein, too, about authoring a different memo used to justify the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, as well as Rosenstein’s role in the Justice Department’s conclusion that there was not sufficient evidence in the Mueller investigation to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
Republicans are seeking to unravel the FBI’s Russia investigation on the heels of Attorney General William Barr’s move to dismiss the charges against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whose guilty plea was secured by Mueller’s team. The charges against Flynn are the latest source of controversy over the FBI probe, as former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified documents that Trump and other Republicans have claimed show the Obama administration was targeting Flynn.
“Rod Rosenstein bears a lot of responsibility for being there, being complicit in this wrongful targeting,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday on Fox News.
Democrats have dismissed the investigations as an election-year effort to boost Trump’s reelection bid and rewrite the history of the Mueller investigation.
“There shouldn’t be hearings on President Trump’s wild conspiracies about the 2016 election,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Monday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said, “I don’t know what to expect,” when asked about Rosenstein’s testimony.
Rosenstein, who is testifying voluntarily, was not present for the start of the Russia probe in July 2016, but he signed off on the third renewal of a FISA court warrant approved for Page — warrants that the inspector general concluded were undermined by significant problems.
Rosenstein’s statement last month, when his testimony was announced, signaled how he’s likely to walk a fine line between defending the findings of Mueller’s team on Russia and agreeing that some in the FBI committed wrongdoing.
“Even the best law enforcement officers make mistakes,” Rosenstein said last month, adding that “some engage in willful misconduct.”
“We can only hope to maintain public confidence if we correct mistakes, hold wrongdoers accountable, and adopt policies to prevent problems from recurring,” he said.
The inspector general report outlined 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the four applications for the Page warrants in 2016 and 2017, including the use of an opposition research dossier on Trump and Russia. But Horowitz also found the FBI investigation had been properly started, with enough predication to probe suspicious ties between people associated with the Trump campaign and suspected Russian agents.
Rosenstein told the inspector general he did not recall the details of the briefings he had received on the Page warrant or those he was given about the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. He said he “did not have an opinion about” whether there was sufficient information to open the probe.
“I’d like to know from him, was he misled?” said Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican on the Judiciary panel. “Let’s find out what he did, and what he actually was briefed on, what he was aware of.”
Many of the major events of the Mueller investigation happened on Rosenstein’s watch, so Wednesday could become a comprehensive revisiting of the FBI’s and the Mueller team’s work.
Rosenstein oversaw the Mueller investigation for almost two years, from his May 2017 appointment of the special counsel — following then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the investigation — until Barr took office in February 2019, the last full month for Mueller’s work.
Rosenstein was the top Justice Department official overseeing the indictments of Russians for election interference and the major obstruction and conspiracy prosecutions of Trump advisers, including former campaign chair Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, the President’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, longtime friend Roger Stone and Flynn.
It was Rosenstein’s directive in Mueller’s initial months, too, that outlined how the special counsel should investigate whether Page, Manafort and foreign-policy campaign adviser George Papadopoulos colluded with Russian government officials. Mueller’s team did not find evidence of any conspiracy between Trump’s associates and Russia, but he did conclude that those inside and associated with the Trump campaign had welcomed and encouraged Russian activity they thought could help Trump win.
Rosenstein has maintained even since his departure that Russians interfered in the 2016 election and will likely continue to in 2020.
Rosenstein also became a major witness to the other half of the Mueller investigation: documenting the President’s attempts to obstruct the probe. Trump was not charged with obstruction after Barr and Rosenstein reviewed the Mueller report, Barr told Congress after he received Mueller’s findings.