WASHINGTON – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaking before lawmakers Friday, defended his controversial memo criticizing former FBI Director James Comey — a document the White House initially used to justify Comey’s firing.
“Former Department of Justice officials from both political parties have criticized Director Comey’s decisions,” Rosenstein said in an opening statement before the House of Representatives, remarks devoted largely to repeating his charge that Comey mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state.
“It was not just an isolated mistake; the series of public statements about the e-mail investigation, in my opinion, departed from the proper role of the FBI director and damaged public confidence in the Bureau and the Department,” Rosenstein said.
“My memorandum is not a legal brief; these are not issues of law,” said Rosenstein, a longtime federal prosecutor. “It is a candid internal memorandum about the FBI director’s public statements concerning a high-profile criminal investigation.”
In the days after Comey’s firing, some lawmakers, former Justice officials and people who knew Rosenstein wondered if he had been forced to write the politically charged memo for President Donald Trump. But Rosenstein, who has only recently been confirmed to be the Justice Department’s second-highest ranking official, left no doubt that it was voluntary.
“I wrote it,” Rosenstein said. “I believe it. I stand by it.”
“Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader,” Rosenstein said. “I wrote a brief memorandum to the attorney general summarizing my long-standing concerns about Director Comey’s public statements concerning the Secretary Clinton e-mail investigation. I chose the issues to include in my memorandum.”
Rosenstein said he learned on May 8 that Trump was going to fire Comey and the president “sought my advice and input.”
Rosenstein had briefed the full Senate on Thursday at an event that left several key questions unanswered, including what exactly Trump said to Rosenstein when he told him Comey would be fired, and to what degree congressional investigators will maintain access to witnesses and documents given Rosenstein’s appointment of Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel. Those issues were not resolved in his speech to the House Friday.
Rosenstein only told House members that he appointed a special counsel to restore Americans’ faith in the Russia investigation, saying that interference in U.S. elections should not be a partisan issue.
The moment brought applause from most lawmakers present, according to several House members. But Democrats, in particular, left the meeting frustrated that Rosenstein was not more forthcoming with information about Trump’s decision to fire Comey. Several said they learned nothing new from speaking with him.
Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., described the meeting as a “brief presentation followed by a Q and A. And not a whole lot of A.”