WASHINGTON — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein knew James B. Comey would be fired as director of the FBI before he wrote a scathing memo laying out the case for the move, several senators who attended a closed-door briefing with the former U.S. attorney from Maryland said Thursday.
"He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to him writing his memo," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and former local prosecutor.
The motivation and timing of Rosenstein's three-page memo has been scrutinized because the White House offered inconsistent explanations for it. At first, the administration said President Donald Trump based his decision on the memo when he fired Comey last week, The memo criticized the FBI's handling of the investigation into a private email server used by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump later said he intended to fire Comey regardless of the Justice Department's advice, and that he had the FBI's probe into alleged Russian election interference in mind when he did so. That is likely one of the reasons Rosenstein named a special counsel Wednesday to lead an independent investigation into whether anyone on the Trump campaign cooperated with Russia.
The president has repeatedly denied any collusion took place, and he did so again Thursday.
Rosenstein briefed the Senate for 90 minutes Thursday, a meeting Democrats demanded after the release of his memo. The unusual gathering — which lawmakers described as sober, if not particularly revealing — was scheduled before Rosenstein allayed much of their concerns by naming former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel.
Lawmakers said Rosenstein was careful in his wording, in part because of the potential scope of Mueller's probe.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said he also believes Rosenstein's memo had little to do with the president's decision. Cardin said many Democrats agree with Rosenstein's findings — many had criticized Comey's decision to insert the FBI into last year's election — but they continue to have questions about the timing of the memo.
"What we all find strange is that all of sudden he decided to put that in a memo and send it over the president," Cardin said. "We didn't really get good answers on that."
Speaking in the East Room on Thursday alongside the president of Colombia, Trump said he respected Rosenstein's decision to appoint Mueller but said "the entire thing has been a witch hunt." The president again pointed to Rosenstein's "very, very strong" letter as a partial explanation of his decision to fire Comey.
Lawmakers from both parties said they left the briefing on Capitol Hill with confidence in Rosenstein's decision, but also questions about what Mueller's probe would mean for separate investigations taking place in Congress. Some said they are uncertain whether the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation will be able to subpoena documents and witnesses, given that Mueller's effort is likely to be seeking the same evidence.
"The takeaway I have is that everything he said was that you need to treat this investigation as if it may be a criminal investigation," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "I think the biggest legal change seems to be that Mr. Mueller is going to proceed forward with the idea of a criminal investigation versus a counterintelligence investigation."
Several lawmakers said Rosenstein requested a point of contact in Congress to coordinate the various probes.
Senators also said they are confident Mueller has been given the authority he needs to effectively take the investigation wherever it needs to go.
Rosenstein developed a reputation in Maryland for being apolitical, but that standing was put to the test after the White House used his memo to justify Comey's ouster. Some Democrats grew impatient with Rosenstein, arguing that he needed to appoint a special prosecutor or step down from the job he has occupied only since the end of April.
"I think people, generally speaking, would feel very confident in him and his decision making in relation to the special counsel," Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said of Rosenstein after the hearing.
Rosenstein had the responsibility of deciding to appoint a special counsel because Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former surrogate for the Trump campaign, has recused himself from decisions on the issue.
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But Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the only Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee who opposed Rosenstein's confirmation last month, said Rosenstein ought to make the same points he made to the senators in a public setting. Blumenthal also said he found Rosenstein's answers on the genesis of the Comey memo lacking.
"Those answers really need to be given to the American people in public under oath," Blumenthal said.
But, he added, "I'm satisfied that Bob Mueller can follow the evidence wherever it leads."