Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's office has interviewed Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein as part of its probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — a conversation that put investigators in the unusual position of obtaining the account of a man who has authority over their work, according to people familiar with the matter.
The interview was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which said that it took place in June or July and that it was about President Trump's removal of James B. Comey as FBI director. Special counsel investigators have been probing whether the president might have attempted to obstruct justice leading up to Comey's firing.
Precisely what investigators have asked Rosenstein, or how key a figure he is in the probe, remains unclear. Rosenstein undeniably played a role in Comey's firing — authoring a memo highly critical of the FBI director, which the White House used initially to justify the firing.
Rosenstein told the Associated Press in June that if his conduct were to become germane to the probe, he would step aside.
"I've talked with Director Mueller about this," Rosenstein told AP. "He's going to make the appropriate decisions, and if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there's a need from me to recuse, I will."
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment Tuesday night. Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said: "As the deputy attorney general has said numerous times, if there comes a time when he needs to recuse, he will. However, nothing has changed."
Rosenstein, who holds the No. 2 position in the Justice Department, appointed Mueller in May to oversee the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had earlier recused himself from the case because of his role in the Trump campaign — a decision which drew scorn from the president.
While he does not conduct day-to-day supervision of Mueller, Rosenstein can veto any investigative step the special counsel's office takes — though Rosenstein must then notify Congress. Rosenstein also approves Mueller's budget and can remove him from his post.
Rosenstein told Fox News earlier this year that Mueller was "not reporting to me about individual decisions made in his investigation."
Trump has said publicly that he was thinking of the Russia investigation when he fired Comey, and he has asserted he would have removed his FBI director no matter the recommendation he got from his other top law enforcement officials.
The deputy attorney general wrote a memo lambasting how Comey handled the conclusion of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, particularly by making public statements on the matter. He concluded his recommendation by saying that the FBI was "unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them," and asserting that Comey "cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions."
White House officials initially pointed to that, and a recommendation from Sessions, as the reason Trump removed Comey from his post.
It is unclear whether Rosenstein knew Trump was thinking of the Russia case when he wrote the memo. Trump did give Rosenstein and Sessions a draft letter which outlined his grievances against Comey, though it did not dwell on Russia, according to people familiar with its contents. Mueller is said to be examining that letter.
Rosenstein and Sessions have both said they discussed the possibility of removing Comey before either of them was confirmed, and many months before the president solicited their opinion.
"In one of my first meetings with then-Senator Jeff Sessions last winter, we discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI," Rosenstein said in a briefing to Congress in May. "Among the concerns that I recall were to restore the credibility of the FBI, respect the established authority of the Department of Justice, limit public statements and eliminate leaks."
Rosenstein has said he learned on May 8 that Trump intended to remove Comey from his post, and, "Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader." He said he finalized his memo on May 9, asking an ethics expert who had worked in the deputy attorney general's office during multiple administrations to review it first.
Rosenstein said he told that attorney that Trump was going to remove Comey, and he was "writing a memorandum to the Attorney General summarizing my own concerns."
"I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it," Rosenstein said in a statement to Congress.