Senators told of broadening Russia investigation

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dropped two bombshells during a hotly anticipated appearance before the Senate on Thursday, less than 24 hours after he announced the appointment of a special counsel in the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election.

According to lawmakers, Rosenstein confirmed that the bureau’s investigation is no longer strictly a counterintelligence investigation — a kind of probe that does not normally result in charges — but also a criminal one.

He also said he was aware President Trump intended to fire Comey prior to penning a memo that the White House later used as its justification for the dismissal. 

Lawmakers emerged from the closed-door meeting painting a sober picture of the briefing. Sen. Christopher CoonsChris CoonsOvernight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | Senate Dem offers patent reform bill MORE (D-Del.) described the mood in the room as serious and thoughtful.

Across town, as lawmakers descended into a secure facility to receive the briefing, Trump was ripping the appointment of the special counsel as something that “hurts the country.”

“I believe it hurts the country terribly, because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country,” Trump told news anchors at a luncheon at the White House.

But Republicans declined to echo the president’s outrage amid an increasingly bipartisan swirl of concern that the White House may have tried to interfere with the FBI’s investigation.

"The president is entitled to his opinion, but we’re a nation of laws. ... The acting attorney general has the authority to appoint a special counsel and has done so,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWill Republicans stand up to the NRA's insurrection rhetoric? The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Ivanka Trump turns to House GOP on paid family leave MORE (R-Fla.) told reporters. 

Rosenstein met with lawmakers for more than an hour but apparently gave few details about the decisionmaking process for firing Comey, including the role of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsJustice Department developing strategies to shut down ‘sanctuary cities’: report Sally Yates slams Sessions on criminal justice reform Preet Bharara emailed DOJ about phone call from Trump: report MORE, who instructed him to write the Comey memo or any conversations he had with Trump.

“He declined to answer in any meaningful way questions about the process that lead to the decision to fire Jim Comey — the preparation of his memo, who told him [to write it],” Coons said, adding that he was asked whether he was directed to produce the memo multiple times.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark WarnerPolicymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures Donna Brazile: Congress has duty to halt Trump on Russia sanctions Lawmakers told of growing cyber threat to election systems MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, added that Rosenstein “did not answer specifics on virtually any question that was asked.”

But senators — in part reassured by the selection of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor — signaled they were willing to give forgive Rosenstein's tight-lipped stance if it was meant to protect the FBI's investigation.

"As it became clear how little he was willing to talk about, it also became clear how broad this investigation that Mueller is about to undertake actually is," Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Senate panel demands Trump's legal rationale for shooting Syrian jet Dems limited in their ability to slow ObamaCare vote MORE (D-Conn.) told reporters. 

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinSunday shows preview: Senate healthcare debate heats up Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said, "there was some frustration” in the room.

“People wanted questions answered ... [but] it's not an unreasonable position for him to take. People were respectful and thankful he showed up. He showed up. He didn’t have to.”

Democrats pointed to Sessions's role as one of their top unanswered questions leaving the briefing. Sessions recused himself earlier this year from the FBI’s investigation but was involved in the decision to fire Comey — a move Democrats argue violated his promise.

“Many of us, including myself, asked that question,” Durbin said. “I can't square Sessions's recusal with his role in dismissing the person who was in charge of the investigation."

Rosenstein will cross the Capitol on Friday to hold an identical meeting with House lawmakers. Democrats also want Sessions to meet with all senators during a separate closed-door briefing.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters that Rosenstein was concerned that any comments he made to senators in the closed-door briefing “would be made public to press, so therefore he felt limited in what he could say.”

Lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees reportedly expressed concerns during the meeting that Mueller’s appointment will interfere with Congress’s ability to investigate election meddling — and possibly preclude testimony by Comey.

Multiple committees have been clamoring for Comey to appear on the Hill to describe both the circumstances surrounding his dismissal and answer questions about any interference in the FBI’s investigation by the White House.

Coons called the impact of the appointment on Comey’s testimony “an open question.”

Both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are conducting their own probes into Russian interference in the election. Congressional investigations often cede jurisdiction to any concurrent federal investigations — a coordinating process called “deconfliction.” 

Rosenstein on Wednesday gave former Mueller control of not only the investigation into whether Trump campaign associates coordinated with Russia but also any other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” — like Comey’s dismissal.

Asked about the potential that the competing investigation could limit who appears before their committee, Warner called it a "great question" but that he and Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrSenate intel panel to hold hearing on Russian meddling in Europe Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | Overnight Cybersecurity: Obama DHS chief defends Russian hack response | Trump huddles on grid security | Lawmakers warned about cyber threat to election systems MORE (R-N.C.) needed more information from Mueller. 

“In many ways our purview is broader than what may be some of the Justice Department/FBI investigation," he added, defending the need to continue the congressional investigations. 

There was one moment of levity in the breifing, lawmakers said.

One senator reportedly asked Rosenstein, very gravely, “I insist that you answer the one question that is on all our minds: How do we appropriately pronounce your name?” 

“Rosen-stine” is correct, he replied.