WASHINGTON ― House Republicans are expanding their attacks on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, making the suspect claim this week that the Republican law enforcement veteran ― in the presence of the FBI director and other Justice Department officials ― threatened Republican House Intelligence Committee staffers during a meeting in January after they discussed the possibility of holding Rosenstein in contempt of Congress.
Rosenstein, the lifelong conservative law enforcement veteran whom President Donald Trump chose for the crucial second-in-command position at the Justice Department, has drawn the ire of Trump loyalists in the House who are seeking to undermine the special counsel investigation being led by Robert Mueller.
The latest claim is that Rosenstein, who joined the Justice Department in 1990 as a public corruption prosecutor, used the power of his office to threaten Republican House investigators during a meeting attended by Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray and other top DOJ officials. In a story in Fox News, Republican House staffers claimed Rosenstein had raised the prospect of subpoenaing their records during a meeting, with one official calling Rosenstein’s rhetoric “downright chilling.”
The meeting included Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who has been fundraising off of his defense of Trump by sending letters to potential donors touting a Trump tweet that referred to Nunes as a “Great American Hero.” Despite the claimed threat, Nunes attended dinner with Rosenstein and a mutual friend the evening of their meeting.
The FBI and the Justice Department, as first reported by CNN, dispute House Republican staffers’ claims about the meeting.
“The FBI disagrees with a number of characterizations of the meeting as described in the excerpts of a staffer’s emails provided to us by Fox News,” an FBI official said in a statement issued to HuffPost.
“The Deputy Attorney General never threatened anyone in the room with a criminal investigation,” a Justice Department official said in a statement. The DOJ officials present for the meeting ― FBI Director Wray, Associate Deputy Attorney General Scott Schools (a career DOJ official) and Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Stephen Boyd ― “are all quite clear that the characterization of events laid out here is false,” the official said.
“The Deputy Attorney General was making the point — after being threatened with contempt — that as an American citizen charged with the offense of contempt of Congress, he would have the right to defend himself, including requesting production of relevant emails and text messages and calling them as witnesses to demonstrate that their allegations are false. That is why he put them on notice to retain relevant emails and text messages, and he hopes they did so,” the DOJ official said.
Former FBI official Greg Brower, who was in the meeting, said he “can’t make any sense” of the House staffers’ claims. “Certainly the deputy attorney general didn’t threaten anyone,” he told HuffPost.
The speech and debate clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress wide protection from executive branch interference in their investigations, and a DOJ representative said that the Department didn’t have a process for obtaining congressional records without approval. (Last week, in fact, the Senate approved a resolution allowing the Senate Intelligence Committee to cooperate with the federal probe of the committee’s former security director.)
The DOJ official said that Rosenstein would be requesting that the House General Counsel conduct an investigation into the conduct of congressional staffers.
The Jan.10 meeting took place shortly after House Republicans began threatening to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress unless he turned over records about the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. If they voted to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress, the referral would be sent to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia ― another Trump appointee who works for Rosenstein. When House Republicans voted to hold former Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, DOJ determined that Holder did not commit a crime and didn’t move forward.
The Fox News report on Rosenstein’s “threat” against House Republican staffers was covered throughout the night on the network, and discussed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show, said he was “confident” that Rosenstein, who he noted had served in DOJ for 28 years, did not threaten anyone.
Rosenstein warned publicly in May that the Justice Department would not be “extorted,” and said that people had made threats against him both publicly and privately. “Any kind of threats that anybody makes are not going to affect the way we do our job,” he said.
Rosenstein is set to meet with Trump on Thursday to discuss a Justice Department inspector general report on the conduct of former FBI Director James Comey in the investigation of Hillary Clinton, according to the Washington Post.
This was updated to include comment from Brower.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter, covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.