After months of Republican attacks, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein appeared to run out of patience Thursday.
His anger barely masked by a rigid smile, the Justice Department official who supervises special counsel Robert S. Mueller III repeatedly swatted back accusations that he has withheld from Congress relevant records about the Russia investigation.
“I’m not trying to hide anything,” Rosenstein said during a contentious, five-hour House Judiciary Committee hearing.
His testimony was marked by sharp exchanges with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has suggested that Rosenstein could be held in contempt of Congress or removed from his post.
“Your use of this to attack me personally is deeply wrong,” Rosenstein said, challenging the lawmaker.
“It’s not personal,” Jordan said. “We just want the information.”
“I appreciate you saying it's not personal,” Rosenstein responded. “Sometime it feels that way.”
It’s unlikely the denials changed anyone’s mind in what has become a bitter partisan fight over the speed, scope and legality of Mueller’s Russia investigation. As the hearing progressed, Republicans passed a nonbinding resolution on the House floor demanding the Justice Department turn over more sensitive records by July 6.
Although FBI Director Christopher A. Wray also testified, Rosenstein faced the sharpest questioning.
He appointed Mueller in May 2017, and he will decide whether any report filed by the special counsel becomes public, a prominent role that has made him a frequent target of GOP criticism. Shortly before Thursday’s hearing began, President Trump tweeted about what he called “a disgraceful situation” at the FBI and the Justice Department.
The result was a hearing unlike most others, as Trump’s allies in Congress hurled questions and insinuations at Rosenstein, a registered Republican appointed by Trump to the No. 2 job in the Justice Department.
At one point, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) asked if Rosenstein should recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he wrote a letter that helped justify Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director last year, an episode that is under scrutiny by Mueller.
Rosenstein answered with a chuckle.
“If it were appropriate for me to recuse, I’d be more than happy to do so and let somebody else handle this,” he said.
The hearing was ostensibly held to review a recent Justice Department inspector general report about how the FBI handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the 2016 presidential race. But Republicans focused heavily on the Russia investigation, which Trump has repeatedly denounced as a “witch hunt.”
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, opened the hearing by comparing the proceedings to the Church Committee, a Senate investigative panel led by Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho that examined and exposed abuses by intelligence agencies in 1975.
“This history shows we have already found ourselves, once before, in a situation where the FBI and other intelligence agencies violated their oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he said.
Democrats have rejected that assessment and accused Republicans of trying to undermine Mueller, who is leading the investigation into whether anyone in the Trump campaign or White House assisted a Russian intelligence operation. So far, Mueller’s team has obtained criminal charges against 20 people, although no one from Trump’s team has been charged with an election-related conspiracy with Russians.
“We cannot hide from our responsibility not to interfere with a proper investigation,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House committee.
A focus of the hearing was Peter Strzok, a senior agent who led the FBI's investigation into Clinton’s email use and also helped launch the counterintelligence inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Strzok’s private text messages expressing disdain for Trump during the campaign were uncovered by the inspector general.
In August 2016, Strzok received a message from an FBI colleague saying, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok replied, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
Strzok told the inspector general's office that the message was not intended to imply that the FBI would take any action to undermine Trump’s campaign, only that he was confident Trump would not win the election.
Rosenstein and Wray said the private messages were inappropriate even as they defended their agencies.
“We are determined to emerge from this experience better and wiser,” Wray said.
Republicans have zeroed in on Strzok to portray the overall Russia investigation as infected by bias. He was questioned for more than 11 hours behind closed doors Wednesday.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) delivered a fiery monologue about Strzok’s text messages, accusing him and others of pursuing political goals with their inquiry. “For them, it was an investigation to stop Donald Trump,” he said.
Gowdy urged Rosenstein and Wray to bring the investigation to a quick conclusion.
“Whatever you got, finish it the hell up, because this country is being torn apart,” he said.
Trump has urged the Justice Department to give Congress more documents about the case, an effort spearheaded by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).
Wray said the FBI has assigned 100 people to review documents, churning through 880,000 pages so far.
But House Republicans haven’t been satisfied. The nonbinding resolution they passed Thursday calls for handing over all records involving “potential violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by personnel of the Department of Justice and related matters.”
The act governs surveillance for intelligence purposes and requires the FBI and Justice Department to apply to a special court for warrants.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the so-called Freedom Caucus, made clear that suspected surveillance abuses were not the only reason to pass the resolution.
“When we get these documents, we believe that it will do away with this whole fiasco of what they call the Russian-Trump collusion, because there wasn’t any,” he said on the House floor.
The resolution was approved along party lines. It’s not legally binding, but it could be a precursor to more aggressive steps, such as attempts to remove Rosenstein from his post.
Democratic leaders wrote a letter to Rosenstein and Wray on Wednesday expressing concern that the Justice Department and the FBI are turning over too much information about an ongoing investigation “despite the corrosive implications.”
“As the attacks on the Special Counsel intensify, it is imperative that you withstand pressure on DOJ and FBI to violate established procedures and norms,” they wrote. “Your role in preserving the integrity of the Special Counsel’s investigation and, most importantly, our justice system has become even more vital.”
Rosenstein sought to allay some of those concerns during Thursday’s hearing.
“We are not going to produce any documents that will interfere with an ongoing investigation,” he said.