WASHINGTON — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein returned to Capitol Hill for a second day Friday, an extraordinary briefing for all House members on the naming of a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Rosenstein made few new disclosures during the private briefing, but he left lawmakers with the understanding that the probe underway by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, a former FBI director, will be wide-reaching and attempt to restore Americans’ confidence in the political system.
“This will not be a partisan activity,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who spoke to reporters afterward. “There was great consensus that going after the Russians for interference with our election is a nonpartisan or bipartisan issue. ... This is about public confidence.”
Lawmakers of both parties are pushing to retain their own investigations, which are already underway through the congressional committees, even as Mueller’s criminal probe takes precedence.
“The Congress has a very significant role, as does the special counsel,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
“We’ve got to let this process play out,” he said. “This is about the fight for the soul of our democracy. We can not afford to lose this one.”
Rosenstein delivered opening remarks, as he did the day before in a briefing for all senators, specifically telling lawmakers that he knew Trump wanted FBI Director James B. Comey fired before writing his own memo to the president on his concerns over Comey’s performance.
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Murmurs rippled through the secure basement meeting room when Rosenstein was unwilling go further, declining to answer further questions about the reasoning behind his memo, which the White House had initially used as justification for firing Comey. Trump disclosed in an interview days later that he wanted Comey out anyway and that the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the election was on his mind when he did so.
“I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it,” Rosenstein told lawmakers, according to his opening statement.
Rosenstein also disputed reports that Comey had asked for more funding for the bureau’s investigation.
“I am not aware of any such request,” he said.
Normally, closed-door briefings by administration officials hold limited interest, as lawmakers tend to peel off after initial remarks are delivered.
But Friday’s hourlong session captivated lawmakers, who packed the session, as senators did for Thursday’s all-Senate briefing.
Mueller’s appointment as special counsel has been widely praised by lawmakers in both parties, and many hope the investigation will begin to bring some answers to the chaos that has upended Trump’s White House.
Applause erupted when Rosenstein told lawmakers his intent in naming Mueller to take over the investigation was to restore Americans’ confidence in the political process.
“For the first time there’s this willingness on this particular issue to jointly pushback and to show a level of independence said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
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“Our obligation is to protect this institution for the American people. And if we are not a check on the executive branch, then we are not doing our job.”
Even Republican lawmakers who stand by the president seemed satisfied that Mueller would bring some stability to the questions circling the White House and the GOP.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., sides with Trump’s view that the investigations are a “witch hunt” — “I actually agree with the president,” he said. But he said he hopes Mueller’s probe can bring some answers. “It was reassuring to me.”