WASHINGTON — Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday defended his decision to appoint Robert Mueller as a special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation and his decision to approve flawed applications for surveillance warrants through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Rosenstein made the remarks in public testimony before the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee, whose GOP members have been looking into the origins of the Russia investigation into meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign.
In his opening statement, the former deputy attorney general explained that he appointed Mueller to lead the Russia investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe and the firing of James Comey as FBI director because he was “concerned that the public would not have confidence in the investigation and that the acting FBI director was not the right person to lead it.”
“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. "As we now know, the eventual conclusions were that Russians committed crimes seeking to influence the election and Americans did not conspire with them."
The acting FBI director at the time was Andrew McCabe, who Rosenstein said was "not fully candid" with him and "certainly wasn't forthcoming" about the Russia probe. Specifically, Rosenstein said that McCabe didn't reveal Comey's memoranda from his interviews with President Donald Trump and the FBI's suspicions about the president to him until a week after McCabe took over as acting director.
In a statement, McCabe responded that Rosenstein's "claims to have been misled by me, or anyone from the FBI, regarding our concerns about President Trump and the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia are completely false. Mr. Rosenstein approved of, and suggested ways to enhance, our investigation of the President. Further, I personally briefed Mr. Rosenstein on Jim Comey’s memos describing his interactions with the President mere days after Mr. Rosenstein wrote the memo firing Jim Comey."
In his testimony, Rosenstein also defended his decision to sign off on FISA applications.
“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,” Rosenstein told lawmakers.
Rosenstein, however, then acknowledged the findings from investigative reviews from last December and this past March that he said “revealed that the FBI was not following the written protocols, and that 'significant errors' appeared in applications filed in connection with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” the code name for the FBI counterintelligence probe.
Asked by Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whether Rosenstein would have approved an application to renew a FISA warrant for Trump campaign aide Carter Page knowing what he knows now, Rosenstein said he would not have done so.
But in an exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Rosenstein said he agreed that the 17 errors in the FISA warrant application for Page, identified in the report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, did not undermine the broader Russia investigation.
He also agreed that those FBI errors further didn't undermine unanimous intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
The former deputy attorney general said that the Department of Justice “must take remedial action” whenever agents or prosecutors “make serious mistakes or engage in misconduct.”
“While it is necessary to correct mistakes and punish wrongdoers, it should not go unsaid today that our law enforcement agencies are filled with men and women who act with integrity,” Rosenstein added. “As we watch them deal with extraordinarily difficult challenges throughout the country, we should take this opportunity to let them know that they have our appreciation and support.”
During the hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that Graham plans to issue 53 subpoenas on Thursday to investigate the Russia probe. Durbin then ticked through Trump aides for whom he would like to seek subpoenas, including George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort and others.
His testimony comes after former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell recently declassified documents that Republicans claim showed that the Obama administration was specifically targeting Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser. It also comes after the Justice Department recently recommended that the judge overseeing Flynn’s case dismiss the criminal charges against him.