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Senate Judiciary chairman: No deputy AG vote until we get an FBI briefing on Russia

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said the nomination of Rod J. Rosenstein as deputy attorney general will not be scheduled to move out of his committee until the Senate Judiciary Committee gets an FBI briefing on Russia. (Photo by Rachel Mummey for The Washington Post)
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley said Tuesday he will hold up the deputy attorney general’s confirmation vote as collateral until FBI Director James B. Comey briefs his panel about investigations into alleged ties between the Trump administration and Russian officials.

“I’m not going to schedule a hearing on the deputy attorney general until we get a briefing from Comey,” Grassley (R-Iowa) said Tuesday, even though, as he noted, “the Justice Department would like to get their deputy out of committee just as soon as they can.”

Deputy attorney general nominee Rod J. Rosenstein had his confirmation hearing before the committee last week and is expected to earn enough votes to be confirmed on the Senate floor. But before his nomination can go to the full Senate for confirmation, the Judiciary Committee must schedule a meeting to approve his nomination. The schedule is at Grassley’s discretion.

Grassley said he informed the Justice Department’s legislative affairs office last Thursday that he would not schedule the business meeting necessary to move Rosenstein’s nomination out of committee until the department scheduled Comey for a briefing with committee members.

Grassley added that he had no preference for whether the briefing would be private or public, saying he would be satisfied with “whatever the law allows.”

Rosenstein is a particularly critical figure as far as the Justice Department’s investigations into alleged Russian ties to the Trump team go. If confirmed, he would assume the attorney general’s responsibilities for any probe related to the Trump campaign, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.

The judiciary committee has taken a keen interest in the substance of those probes, with Grassley and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), formally requesting a briefing on related matters in mid-February, after the resignation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

But Grassley has been growing increasingly frustrated with the Justice Department for failing to send the FBI director to brief his committee on its investigations, or furnish the transcripts of Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Grassley complained last week that during a phone call between himself, Feinstein and Comey last Monday, Comey informed them he was still seeking clearance to brief the committee.

Since then, Grassley has also given his blessing to the efforts by heads of the crime and terrorism subcommittee to solicit evidence from the Justice Department pertaining to President Trump’s charge that the Obama administration ordered wiretaps on him.

But the committee has received none of what it asked for — nor any indication from the Justice Department about when a response might be coming.

As the Judiciary Committee waits, Comey has been making trips to Capitol Hill to speak with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Gang of Eight — the party leaders and intelligence committee heads who receive the highest-level briefings. He is expected back on Capitol Hill next Monday to give public testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is holding a public hearing on the allegations of Russian election meddling, as well as purported ties between Trump team members and the Kremlin, and the spate of recent leaks that has brought much of this information to light.

On Monday, the Justice Department also communicated with the House Intelligence Committee to let its leaders know the department would need more time to furnish an answer to the request of Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) to provide evidence to back up Trump’s wiretapping claims.

The letter from Nunes and Schiff was sent on the same day Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Judiciary Committee’s crime and terrorism subcommittee, first demanded a similar collection of “warrant applications and court orders … related to wiretaps of President Trump, the Trump Campaign, or Trump Tower.”

The Judiciary Committee members have received no response, Graham said.

“We have jurisdiction over the FBI. It wasn’t a complicated letter, so I expect some kind of reply,” Graham said Tuesday. “This is not an unreasonable request, it should be answered.”

Graham said he didn’t know whether to direct his frustration at Comey or at the Justice Department. But he hinted that his frustrations were reaching a boiling point — noting that if, at any point, he feels the committee process is not working, he will resume his call for a special committee to investigate Russia-related allegations.