The No. 2 official at the Justice Department told senators Thursday that he knew President Trump wanted to fire James B. Comey before he wrote a letter criticizing the FBI director.
In an unusual closed-door briefing with the full Senate, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein offered a few new details about a frenetic nine days that have thrown the White House into crisis, beginning with Comey's firing and climaxing in Rosenstein's decision to appoint former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel. In that role, Mueller will head an investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion with figures in the Trump campaign.
At Trump's request, Rosenstein last week wrote a letter that laid out the case for Comey's firing, focused on what Rosenstein said was Comey's improper handling of the 2016 Hillary Clinton email investigation. Initially, the White House claimed Trump fired Comey based on Rosenstein's recommendation, though Trump later said he planned on removing the FBI director regardless.
Though some have suggested Rosenstein was used by the White House as a pawn to justify Comey's firing, senators said Rosenstein told them Thursday he was aware of Trump's plans.
"He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to him writing his memo," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told reporters after emerging from the session.
"He knew the day before," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. "On May 8 he learned."
Rosenstein's visit to Capitol Hill was originally planned to discuss Comey's firing and the future of the Russia investigation, but the meeting was quickly dominated by Rosenstein's surprise decision Wednesday evening to appoint Mueller.
According to Durbin, Rosenstein said he named Mueller to "make certain the American people thought this would be handled fairly and justly."
Rosenstein was careful not to address some other recent revelations in the fast-moving controversy, senators said, including reports that Comey wrote his own memo detailing a private conversation he says he had with Trump when the president asked him to end an investigation into Michael Flynn, just after Flynn had been pushed out as national security advisor for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Trump on Thursday denied he asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.
Both Republicans and Democrats were clearly relieved by the appointment of Mueller, a 12-year FBI director with a solid reputation for probity and thoroughness. But the naming of a special counsel has also raised questions about how to proceed with a number of Russia-related investigations already underway in Congress.
"The shock to the body is this is now considered a criminal investigation," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had opposed naming a special counsel. "And Congress' ability to conduct an investigation of all things Russia is severely limited. I think a lot of members wanted the special counsel to be appointed, but don't understand you're pretty well knocked out of the game."
Graham said some potential witnesses might refuse to cooperate out of concern for self-incrimination. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) indicated Thursday that Flynn may not willingly meet the committee's subpoena request for information, though Democrats vowed to push the issue.
"I am going to go to the mat — go to the mat — to make sure that this subpoena with Mr. Flynn is carried out," said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Comey, senators believed, would be a more willing witness who would work with Mueller as well as the oversight committees on Capitol Hill.
"At some point I believe he has a responsibility he will honor to come before the Judiciary Committee and tell his story to the American people," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "He owes the American people his story, and from all I can see he has no reluctance to tell it."
Democrats and some Republicans insisted that the congressional panels would not take a back seat to Mueller's work.
"After this meeting it is clear as ever that the Intelligence Committee in the Senate should continue its work and it should continue full throttle ahead," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "And the need for former Director Comey to come testify soon in public is as great as ever."
Democrats also are pressing for an inquiry into Trump's statements that may have revealed secret intelligence to two top Russian officials. Three Democratic senators on Thursday asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to conduct a "damage assessment" on whether Trump may have compromised sensitive intelligence methods.
Before Mueller was named, Rosenstein, a career federal prosecutor, was overseeing the inquiry because Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself over his failure to disclose in his Senate confirmation hearing that he'd had meetings with Russia's ambassador to Washington.
But Rosenstein came under intense pressure from Democratic lawmakers to step aside and name an independent prosecutor after he became embroiled in the political fight over why Comey was fired on May 9, a battle that raised questions of whether Rosenstein was sufficiently independent of the White House.
Under the special counsel law, Mueller will enjoy what Rosenstein called "a degree of independence from the normal chain of command" in the Justice Department. But Rosenstein, as acting attorney general for purposes of the Russia investigation, also maintains some control.
Mueller will decide the scope of his investigation, including whether it will take charge of a federal grand jury in Virginia that has subpoenaed documents involving Flynn.
Under the law, Mueller will have authority to choose his own staff and within 60 days request his own budget, which Rosenstein approves.
Rosenstein will not directly supervise Mueller's work but can request that he explain any steps he's taking and may overrule them as "inappropriate or unwarranted." If he does, though, the law requires him to notify the judiciary committees in Congress. And the law says Rosenstein should "give great weight to the views of the special counsel."
3:55 p.m.: The story was updated with details about Rosenstein's briefing with the Senate.