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Rosenstein role in Comey firing raises more questions than answers

Deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein sent a memo to President Trump which ultimately led to the firing of FBI director James Comey. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The deputy attorney general at the center of former FBI director James B. Comey’s firing made a surprise appearance on Capitol Hill on Thursday, arriving as Senate Democrats were demanding a reckoning over his role in the ouster but leaving more questions than answers in his wake.

Two weeks ago, Rod J. Rosenstein received the bipartisan confidence of the vast majority of the Senate during his confirmation as deputy attorney general. But a memo he drafted this week that has served as President Trump’s public justification for firing Comey has all but eviscerated that trust.

Led primarily by Democrats, senators are now asking Rosenstein to come back to Capitol Hill next week to explain his role in Comey’s dismissal. A senior ­Republican, too, declined to defend Rosenstein’s actions after meeting with him behind closed doors.

Rosenstein was tight-lipped as he entered and emerged from a secure facility Thursday on Capitol Hill, where he huddled with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The senators said the meeting had been scheduled before Comey’s ouster to discuss “deconfliction” — keeping the FBI’s and committee’s investigations of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government from stepping on each other’s toes.

Nonetheless, the arrival of Rosenstein and his entourage — during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that dealt extensively with Comey’s firing — served only to heighten the political intrigue surrounding the deputy attorney general’s enigmatic role in the controversial Comey affair.

Following the meeting, Warner said he “still has concerns” about Rosenstein, while Burr refused to say whether he has confidence in Rosenstein to oversee the Justice Department’s Russia-related investigations.

“I don’t think that’s up to Senator Warner and myself to make,” Burr said. “The president’s made a determination . . . we don’t have the luxury of picking who we work with.”

As justification for Comey’s firing, Trump initially pointed to Rosenstein’s May 9 memo, in which the former prosecutor criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House cast him as a prime mover of the decision. Senators said Thursday that they did not discuss that point with him.

Meanwhile, as Rosenstein huddled with Intelligence Committee leaders, NBC released an interview in which Trump said the decision to oust Comey was his. He said he would have found a reason to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s recommendation.

Later Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) excoriated the Trump administration for the mixed messaging surrounding Comey’s firing and Rosenstein’s role in it, noting on the Senate floor that “the story coming out of the White House about why Mr. Comey was fired continues to change, and there are no good explanations for the changes.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is trying to schedule an all-senators’ briefing with Rosenstein on Capitol Hill as soon as next week. Democrats want to hold a similar meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Schumer said Thursday. “The need for these briefings is even greater now than it was this morning, given what the president said this afternoon,” he said.

Rosenstein has not responded publicly to the president’s shifting claims about his role in Comey’s firing. Nor has he addressed Senate Democrats’ warnings that his reputation as an “independent, apolitical actor” is “imperiled,” as Schumer wrote to him in a letter. Schumer also asked for details on any meetings Rosenstein had with Trump before drafting the memo, and with Comey about requests for additional resources to aid the FBI’s Russia investigation. Schumer asked for answers to the questions by Monday.

Comey requested such resources from the Justice Department, according to several people familiar with the discussion. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, McCabe said that he was unaware of the request, and that he believed the FBI had adequate resources for the investigation.

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the senior Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committees, which oversees funding for the Justice Department, are also trying to clarify that point with Rosenstein. On Thursday, they asked the deputy attorney general to specify the circumstances surrounding Comey’s request.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) should dedicate the needed personnel and resources to the investigation without hesitation," Leahy and Shaheen wrote in a letter to the deputy attorney general, adding that they want "the details of any request for increased resources made by the FBI to DOJ" and "how this request was communicated from the FBI to DOJ, and whether similar requests were made to the White House."

Unclear is whether senators will get an opportunity to hear from another key player who could set part of the record straight: Comey.

Burr and Warner invited Comey to address the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, but as of Thursday afternoon, they had not received a response, Burr said.

In the absence of answers, some senior Democrats are casting doubt on the entire foundation of their once-positive impression of him.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a top member of the Intelligence Committee, said she has read Rosenstein’s memo three times. She remains incredulous, she said, that he wrote it — and that it may have served as the basis for Comey’s firing. She pointed to the second page, which is filled with quotes from opinion pieces and news clippings about former Justice Department officials critiquing Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation.

“That surprised me, that a guy as highly prized as Rosenstein, on the basis of legal talent, professionalism in the department, would pull things out of a newspaper and quote them, in terms of somebody else’s opinion of Comey,” Feinstein said. “It means to me we really have to have him in and talk to him, because, wow, I mean, I could have written it.”

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