WASHINGTON -— Republican fury with the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election boiled over Thursday at a congressional hearing where lawmakers repeatedly attacked the senior Justice Department official overseeing the probe and urged him to end it imminently.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein angrily denied GOP accusations that he had stonewalled demands for details on politically sensitive investigations, but his assurances were met with skepticism and scorn, and halfway through the hearing the Republican-controlled House approved a measure demanding he do more.
For hours, Rosenstein, a Donald Trump appointee, faced some of his fiercest congressional critics at an emergency hearing called for he and FBI director Christopher Wray to answer questions about a recent inspector general’s report that highlighted bias within the bureau andfound serious failings in how federal law enforcement handled the high-profile investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
But the questions mostly centered on Rosenstein — and Republican accusations that he has withheld key details about that matter and the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller III into whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired with Russia during the election.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., delivered a lengthy monologue on the anti-Trump text messages exchanged by some FBI officials, and then pleaded with Rosenstein to conclude the Russia investigation.
“We’ve seen the bias — we need to see the evidence,” Gowdy said. “If you have evidence of wrongdoing by any member of the Trump campaign, present it to the damn grand jury. If you have evidence that this president acted inappropriately, present it to the American people. There’s an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. I think right now all of us are being denied. Whatever you got, finish it the hell up, because this country is being torn apart.”
Grand juries in Washington and New York City have spent months hearing evidence related to Trump associates.
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Rosenstein responded that he shared Gowdy’s concerns but added: “With regard to the investigation, I’ve heard suggestions that we should just close the investigation. I think the best thing we can do is finish it appropriately and reach a conclusion.”
Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from investigations related to the 2016 campaign, Rosenstein serves as the acting attorney general of the Russia probe. Republicans pressed him to explain his role, but he brushed aside those questions, saying he could not discuss classified information.
Committee Democrats tried to defend Rosenstein, and blasted the GOP for what they said was a disingenuous attempt to discredit the investigation.
“The purpose of this hearing is to undermine the FBI, to undermine Mr. Rosenstein, and to undermine our system of justice,’’ said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., before issuing a blunt warning to Rosenstein: “They want you. They want to impeach you. They want to indict you, they want to get rid of you.”
For months, the more conservative members of Congress have called for Rosenstein’s ouster over their dissatisfaction with the production of investigative documents relating to the Russia and Clinton probes. Throughout Thursday’s hearing, as Republicans leveled accusations at him, Rosenstein tried to remained composed but occasionally snapped at lawmakerswhen he wasn’t allowed to answer a charge.
“Why are you keeping information from Congress?” demanded Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a staunch defender of President Trump.
“I don’t agree with you, congressman,” Rosenstein shot back. “That is not accurate, sir.”
Jordan accused the deputy attorney general of redacting documents to hide information embarrassing to the FBI.
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“Mr. Jordan, I am the deputy attorney general of the United States,” Rosenstein answered. “I’m not the person doing the redacting.”
As Jordan interrupted Rosenstein to level more accusations, Rosenstein shot back: “Your use of this to attack me personally is deeply wrong ... I’m not trying to hide anything.”
Jordan responded, “It’s not personal,” as the two continued to argue and Democrats on the panel attempted to interject in Rosenstein’s defense.
Moments later, the hearing was paused so the entire House could vote on a measure to publicly rebuke the deputy attorney general. By a vote of 226 to 183, lawmakers approved a resolution calling on the Justice Department to “comply with requests including subpoenas” by July 6.
Minutes before the vote, Rosenstein insisted to the committee that the department has “hundreds of people working around the clock trying to satisfy this request” and that the vote demanding the documents be produced more quickly would not affect that work.
Jordan and Mark Meadows, R-N.C., authors of the House resolution, have suggested that if Rosenstein does not comply with their demands by their deadline, they will pursue contempt charges against him — even though GOP leaders have not indicated a willingness to take such punitive steps while the Justice Department is trying to produce the records.
“We are not in contempt of this Congress, and we are not going to be in contempt of this Congress,” Rosenstein said.
Wray has faced similar but less intense criticism, and bristled Thursday at the idea lawmakers want to hold him responsible for missteps at the bureau long before he became director in August.
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“I didn’t think I was going to be spending the first 10 months of my job staring down the barrel of a contempt citation for conduct that occurred long before I even thought about being FBI director,” Wray said.
The hearing marked the first time Rosenstein publicly answered lawmakers’ questions about the report issued earlier this month by Inspector General Michael Horowitz. The 500-page report blasted former FBI director James Comey and found that top bureau officials assigned to the Clinton email case and the investigation into Russia’s election interference had shown a “willingness to take official action” to prevent Trump from becoming president.
Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have sparred over Horowitz’s findings, with Republicans suggesting that anti-Trump sentiment at the FBI had more far-reaching consequences than the inspector general acknowledged. Democrats point to his finding that bias did not ultimately affect prosecutors’ decision not to charge Clinton with a crime.
Horowitz appeared by himself at a hearing before the committee last week.
Wray has vowed to discipline those still at the FBI whose conduct the inspector general questioned, and already the bureau has taken steps toward firing agent Peter Strzok, who once was the lead agent in the Clinton email and Russia probes. The inspector general found anti-Trump text messages between Strzok and an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, including one in which Strzok said “we’ll stop” Trump from becoming president. The inspector general concluded that the messages implied the officials had a “willingness to take official action” to hurt Trump’s chances of becoming president.
Strzok’s attorney has disputed that conclusion and argued that Strzok’s actions served only to hurt Clinton and benefit Trump. Strzok testified privately for several hours before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.