Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein knew President Trump planned to fire FBI Director Jim Comey before he sat down to write a memo criticizing Comey’s conduct.
That’s according to several United States senators who met with Rosenstein Thursday afternoon in a secure room in the Capitol basement.
“He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to writing his memo,” Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill told reporters after the briefing.
Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin echoed McCaskill, saying Rosenstein told lawmakers that he knew of Trump’s intent the day before he wrote a document that the White House initially said was the main reason Comey was dismissed.
Trump undercut that timeline in an interview last week, but in a news conference on Thursday, he said he relied on Rosenstein’s recommendation to make his decision.
Rosenstein fielded questions in the closed session for more than an hour, but many senators left the briefing unsatisfied.
“He answered a lot of questions but declined to answer a lot, as well,” Durbin said. “And many of the questions he declined to answer came down to his concern of whether he might interfere with the investigation by Robert Mueller.”
Mueller is the man Rosenstein tapped Wednesday to head the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into whether anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian operatives who sought to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
The appointment won Rosenstein wide praise from Republicans and Democrats.
“The general consensus is it was a good decision to pick a special counsel,” said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, saying most lawmakers have “a lot of confidence in Mr. Mueller,” who ran the FBI for 12 years.
But Graham said that Mueller’s appointment now shifts the FBI probe into a higher gear, and is likely to hamper the House and Senate intelligence committees’ investigations into Russian electoral interference.
“You’re pretty well knocked out of the game,” he said about the ongoing high-profile congressional probes, “and that’s probably the way it should be.”
“Congress has been pretty much sidelined. Not completely, but pretty much,” Graham said.
His argument: Congressional interviews and hearings could inadvertently harm or complicate the criminal investigation.
“If I were Mr. Mueller I would jealously guard the witness pool,” Graham said. “So one of the big losers in this decision is the public,” because fewer people would be likely to testify in open congressional hearings.
The winners of such a shift could be congressional Republicans. That’s something that, perhaps inadvertently, Graham nodded to. “We can go back to dealing with legislative matters that affect the American people.”
“We don’t want to do anything to get in the way,” said Texas Republican John Cornyn, who serves as majority whip. “That is a train wreck waiting to happen.”
Democrats disagree. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he is determined to press forward with public hearings.
“I would be very discouraged if somehow this new special prosecutor would preclude Jim Comey from testifying in public before our committee,” he said. “Nothing really has changed. The scope of the investigation is still the same.”
Democrats — and many Republicans — had been eager to hear from Comey after reports emerged this week that Trump may have urged the then-FBI director to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, according to multiple Comey associates.
Trump has denied the conversation took place.
“The Intelligence Committee in the Senate has to continue its work, and it should continue full throttle ahead,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said after the briefing. “And the need for former Director Comey to come testify in public soon is as great as ever.”