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Rod Rosenstein Defends Russia Probe But Says He Had Incomplete Info At The Time

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives to testify before a Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Crossfire Hurricane," the FBI's probe into Russian election interference and the 2016 Trump campaign on Wednesday.
Jim Lo Scalzo
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives to testify before a Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Crossfire Hurricane," the FBI's probe into Russian election interference and the 2016 Trump campaign on Wednesday.

Updated at 4:09 p.m. ET

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Wednesday that if he knew then what he knows now, he would not have signed his now-infamous application to continue surveillance on an ex-junior aide to Donald Trump.

Rosenstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he relied on lower-level investigators and attorneys to do the right thing in preparing applications for the secret court that authorizes surveillance on Americans.

Now, he said, he recognizes via the subsequent investigations that those officials did not do the right thing — and accordingly, Rosenstein said he wouldn't have signed the application.

The former deputy attorney general defended the overall need for an investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election and said he stood by its findings and much of its work.

But he also acknowledged that it has since become clear he and other Justice Department leaders were acting upon incomplete information.

In the case of former Trump aide Carter Page, Rosenstein said he remembered an application for renewal, one that that had been submitted before, and one that he then believed made a cogent case to continue the surveillance.

"My recollection of it was that it was actually fairly persuasive," he said.

GOP vows more investigation of Russia investigation

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went ahead with a session Wednesday scheduled before the flare in protests and violence that followed the death of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in an incident that reignited long-simmering anger at police in cities across the country.

The political context has evolved; Republicans want to tie former Vice President Joe Biden into what they call the abuses of power from the end of the Obama era.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said what he called the "Obama-Biden administration" had done "went right up to the very top" and was worse than the abuses of President Richard Nixon.

Cruz also called Rosenstein "grossly negligent."

He and Republicans sought answers about what Rosenstein and other Justice Department leaders knew at the time they were making fateful decisions about the FBI's investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election, which sought to hinder Hillary Clinton and help elect then-candidate Donald Trump.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., rejected Cruz's comparison between Obama and Nixon and said it would "never stand the test of time." She also said Graham was wasting everyone's time now.

"I have made it very clear that I think that it is absurd we are having this hearing."

Strange days

Rosenstein found himself in the center of a political vortex in the spring of 2017, not long after he'd been nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

His boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was a Trump loyalist and had recused himself from the Russian matter. The president had fired FBI Director James Comey.

In the midst of that febrile atmosphere, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as a special counsel and continue the Russia investigation.

"I was concerned the public would not have confidence in the investigation and that the acting FBI director [at the time] was not the right person to lead it," Rosenstein told senators on Wednesday.

"I decided appointment of special counsel was the best way to complete the investigation and promote public confidence in the conclusions."

Re-look after re-look has verified Mueller's findings about the Russian interference, but the work of the FBI and Justice Department wasn't found to be problem-free.

Issues with the FBI investigators involved and their dealings within officialdom, especially with the secret court that oversees government surveillance, have embarrassed the top levels of federal law enforcement.

Longtime target

Many Republicans have faulted Rosenstein since his earliest days over his appointment of Mueller.

Now, Graham brought Rosenstein back into center stage at a time when Trump and other allies want to link Biden with intelligence collection that involved members of the Trump camp.

Graham said he also intends to conduct more interviews and hearings about the investigation, including with planned subpoenas. One future witness could include the former deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, Graham said.

"We're going to get to the bottom of it ... this stinks," Graham said. "This is a sad episode on the history of the FBI."

Biden's camp has rejected the idea there were any abuses and pointed out that there was no way for administration officials to single out Americans in intelligence reporting because their names were hidden, or masked.

They were only identified after requests for more information about who was talking with existing targets, Biden's campaign said.

That practice is legal and takes place thousands of times per year. Trump and allies have made it the basis of political attacks against Biden and others from that era, as Cruz repeated at Wednesday's hearing.

Biden, in turn, has blasted Trump and Republicans for what he calls their attempt to distract attention from the most pressing challenges of the day — first the coronavirus pandemic and now the national unrest over police violence.

"Sen. Graham sold his conscience in exchange for a better shot at winning his primary," a spokesman for Biden's campaign said

Democrats, who are in the minority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, took up that theme on Wednesday, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. She also restated that the findings and much of the work of the Mueller era have been validated.

Feinstein emphasized with Rosenstein that the infamous, never-verified Russia dossier was not used as the basis to charge anyone.

And Rosenstein underlined what he called the important need to conduct investigations that might not necessarily lead to charges — and that in the case of the Mueller era, no Americans ultimately were charged with conspiring with the Russians who attacked the election.

Republicans argue the mere fact of a continued investigation into Page — after evidence surfaced they argue should have quashed it — is improper even though Page was never charged.

In Rosenstein's case, he signed a request to continue surveillance on Page based on work product that has since been repudiated by internal investigators and the secret surveillance court.

Those details didn't become clear to the public — or Rosenstein, he said on Wednesday — until later. Graham said he accepts that explanation but wants to know why information being gleaned by lower-level investigators wasn't making its way to the leadership of the FBI or Justice.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., tried to emphasize with Rosenstein that although the Page surveillance application process was flawed, none of the other surveillance conducted in the Russia investigation suffered from the same problems.

The Page problems don't invalidate the rest of the Mueller work, Leahy argued.

Other Democrats complained about the use of the time and energy of the Judiciary Committee to execute what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., called a political errand for Trump.

Graham defended what he called the need to excavate the decisions in the Russia investigation and, meanwhile, has sought to show the Judiciary Committee can keep many plates spinning at once.

The committee heard from witnesses on Tuesday about the deadly effects of the coronavirus within the federal prison system and Graham also has planned a hearing later this month about race and policing following Floyd's death.

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Corrected: June 7, 2020 at 9:00 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island as a Republican. Sheldon is a Democrat.
Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.