House Republicans plan to hit Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with a barrage of questions about what they say is an anti-Trump bias at the FBI and Justice Department, in an attack aimed at undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
When Rosenstein testifies Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans will be armed with a bill of particulars intended to raise doubts about the motives of those involved in the probe into whether President Donald Trump or associates colluded with Russia to meddle in last year’s election.
Some Republicans are even urging appointment of a second special counsel just to look into allegations that prosecutors and agents favored Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton last year, as several congressional inquiries have deteriorated into bitter partisan sniping.
“We continue to see bias against the president and in favor of Mrs. Clinton at the FBI’s and Justice Department’s highest levels,” Republican panel member Matt Gaetz of Florida said.
Rosenstein is expected to say that he continues to stand behind Mueller, a former FBI director, and has confidence in him, according to current and former U.S. officials.
But Rosenstein won’t be able to dodge pointed questions about the Russia investigation as easily as current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff Sessions did during recent hearings, the officials said. That’s because Rosenstein appointed Mueller and is the only person with the power to fire him or stop parts of his investigation.
“It’s going to be every bit as intense as the Sessions and Wray hearings,” said Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee. “I’d say even more so because he has direct oversight over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”
Rosenstein named Mueller to lead the investigation in May after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Rosenstein had that authority after Sessions recused himself from the investigation because he was a senior adviser in Trump’s election campaign.
Several congressional committees have been looking into aspects of the Russian meddling, which U.S. intelligence agencies have found was intended to hurt Clinton and ultimately help Trump win. But initial efforts to produce consensus have largely dissolved amid partisan maneuvering. Only the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to maintain a mostly bipartisan agenda.
On the Judiciary Committee, Republicans will push Rosenstein to explain whether a dossier with unverified allegations against Trump, some of them salacious, was used as the sole justification to open the Russia investigation and obtain surveillance warrants under Comey, and whether officials now working for Mueller are politically biased against Trump, Jordan said.
“Mueller’s doing a good job of undermining his own investigation,” Gaetz said. Mueller did that, he said, in part by “fishing from the never-Trump swamp” to staff his investigative team.
Republicans have seized on revelations that a top FBI agent assigned to the investigation, Peter Strzok, allegedly sent anti-Trump texts last summer, and that a senior Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, had connections to the company that created the dossier, which was largely financed by Clinton’s campaign. Strzok was reassigned during the summer after Mueller learned of the allegations against him, while Ohr was demoted last week.
“A central question to Mr. Rosenstein is did the Comey FBI work in concert with the Democrats using this dossier to try and undermine the Trump campaign?” Jordan said. “It doesn’t get any more wrong that that.”
Trump too has seized on some of these questions, writing on Twitter that the FBI’s reputation is “in tatters.”
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will seek assurances from Rosenstein that he will protect Mueller and rebuff any efforts by Trump or the White House to interfere in the investigation.
Committee Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California said Republican attacks on the FBI and Justice Department officials are “tawdry” and an effort to “pre-discredit evidence” from Mueller’s probe.
“It’s pretty apparent what they are trying to do,” she said.
Some House Republicans and their Senate counterparts say a second special counsel should investigate issues including Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of private emails when she was secretary of state and a 2010 decision by the Obama administration that let Russia to buy a stake in U.S. uranium production.
Asked whether a second special counsel is needed, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday, “If we are going to investigate things, let’s look at something where there’s some real evidence.” She said Trump “has great concern about some of the conduct that’s taken place.”
Rosenstein gave Mueller a broad mandate to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with Trump’s campaign, as well as any matters that may arise directly from the investigation.
To date, Mueller has indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and another campaign aide, Rick Gates. The special counsel also secured a plea deal and cooperation agreement from Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians. A low-level foreign policy adviser to the campaign also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.
Mueller’s investigation is closing in on Trump and his inner circle, including son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Some Judiciary Committee Republicans dismissed the premise that they’re involved in a concerted effort to undermine Mueller or his investigation.
“I have defended Mueller from Day One, and you won’t find anything to the contrary,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who also heads the House Oversight Committee and is a former prosecutor.
As for Rosenstein’s expected grilling before the committee, Democrat Lofgren said, “I’m sure he’ll be able to stick up for himself and the department.”
— With assistance by Margaret Talev