Russia Investigation Was Not a 'Hoax,' Former Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Testifies

Rod Rosenstein
Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is sworn in at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on June 03, 2020, in Washington, DC. The Republican-led panel is exploring issues raised with warrants issued in the FBI investigation, codenamed "Crossfire Hurricane" at the time, of Trump campaign officials in the 2016 presidential race. Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Getty

A former senior Department of Justice official told a panel of U.S. Senators Wednesday morning he did not believe former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was "a hoax," further acknowledging concerns about how surveillance against Trump associates had been conducted.

"I have confidence in Mr. Mueller's integrity," former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Senator Diane Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "With regard to the nature of the allegations, keep in mind those allegations are coming from other sources and I can't vouch for the allegations."

Rosenstein, who resigned from the Department of Justice in May 2019, became the top official responsible for overseeing the FBI's Russia probe after the recusal of Jeff Sessions, who was attorney general at the time.

Rosenstein testified Wednesday at the first such hearing in the committee's review of the origins of the FBI's investigation into Russian interference and potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. The probe was codenamed "Crossfire Hurricane."

Testimony about the case, which is now closed, came as protests were being held across the country over police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Demonstrations in several large cities have produced images of looting and arson as footage of apparent police violence against protesters continues to spread rapidly on social media.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has said his review will likely be concluded before the 2020 election. The committee will vote Thursday on whether to assume a broad authority to subpoena documents related to the origins of Crossfire Hurricane, which could involve senior Obama administration officials.

Attorney General Bill Barr has tasked the U.S. attorney in Connecticut with managing a separate probe, under the banner of the Department of Justice, into the initiation of the Russia investigation. That inquiry is criminal in nature, but Barr has said he does not expect it to touch on former President Barack Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

Rosenstein is a polarizing figure, having become entangled in critical facets of the Russia probe to the chagrin of members of both parties. After Sessions stepped down from overseeing the FBI's probe, the job soon fell to Rosenstein, who would join the Department of Justice as its second-highest ranking official.

One week after President Donald Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, Rosenstein announced the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation. But Rosenstein was also a central player in Comey's dismissal. He authored a memo criticizing Comey's handling of the bureau's Clinton email probe, which the White House released as justification for terminating Comey.

Comey's deputy at the time, Andrew McCabe, would later allege that Trump ordered Rosenstein to author the memo as pretext for ousting the FBI director. Rosenstein has publicly defended his role in the shakeup, which itself became a focal point in the Russia investigation as Mueller probed suspicions that the president obstructed justice. Trump went on to say that he had the Russia investigation on his mind when he fired Comey.

Republicans lawmakers homed in on the findings of a Department of Justice watchdog report released in December that found "serious performance failures" in the FBI's applications to surveil a Trump campaign advisor. The circumstances surrounding how the bureau obtained Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants against Carter Page—the report deemed them "basic and fundamental errors"—have led to calls to reform the surveillance process.

Rosenstein largely defended his record Wednesday and said he would not have signed the warrant applications presented to him by the FBI if he knew at the time what has since been revealed about deficiencies in the process.

"Whenever agents or prosecutors make serious mistakes, or engage in misconduct, the Department of Justice needs to take remedial action. And if existing policies fall short, those policies need to be changed," he said in an opening statement. "Ensuring the integrity of governmental processes is essential to promoting public confidence in the rule of law."

Graham recently released a less-classified version of a "scope memo" written by Rosenstein in August 2017, outlining Mueller's remit when conducting the politically charged Russia inquiry. It revealed that the scope of the investigation was more expansive than had been known at the time, including probes of specific Trump campaign officials beyond a nexus to Russian interference.

Rosenstein sparred with Graham over how the memo was drafted. In a tense exchange, the chairman voiced doubts about the source of the information used to determine Mueller's mandate.

"I believe it came from the Mueller team," Rosenstein replied.

Graham proposed that a pair of former investigators earlier removed from the probe could have polluted the information pipeline. He then accused Rosenstein of serving as a rubber-stamp "conduit" for the Mueller team.

"They gave you a document to sign," Graham said. "Here's my belief: That they prepared the document, that they defined the scope of their own investigation."

Rosenstein said that he was "relying on information that's coming" from Mueller's team when he issued the memo.