Rosenstein and Wray Squirm on the Hill

Rod Rosenstein and Christopher Wray went up to Capitol Hill on Thursday to tell the House Intelligence Committee that neither one of them had noticed anything wrong with Robert Mueller’s special probe or with the anti-Trump bias of its staff.

No matter what Congress and the public had read in the massive inspector general’s report recently, they wanted everyone to know that the deputy attorney general and the FBI director had the Bureau under control now, and that Rosenstein had Wray and Mueller under control, too. Everything is fine. Nothing to see here. Couldn’t Congress just leave them alone? Here were two men metaphorically standing outside their houses now burnt to the ground, and asking the firemen inside for coffee. Should we pity them or lock them up as madmen?

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) pointed out that Rosenstein had conflicts everywhere you turned. How could he oversee the Mueller probe when he had written the memo to President Trump recommending former FBI Director James Comey be fired in the first place? If reports were true that Mueller was investigating the president for “obstruction” related to firing Comey, then hadn’t Rosenstein set up a loop to investigate himself? Wasn’t he the origin point of the whole mess?   

“Congressman, I can assure you that if it were appropriate for me to recuse, I would be more than happy to do so,” Rosenstein said. “But it’s my responsibility to do it.” Apparently, he felt comfortable being the responsible party for the whole mess. That air of supreme confidence would not last long.

Then Rosenstein assured Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), “There is no one more committed to rooting out abuse and misconduct than I. We look to find any credible evidence, and we give it to Chairman Nunes.” That was a soothing answer, except for the fact it was untrue. Committee Chairman  Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has told the world repeatedly that Rosenstein is obstructing his investigation. Nunes had even appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to tell the public that his staff felt threatened by Rosenstein.

When Gaetz pressed Rosenstein on whether he had even read the FISA warrant that he had signed to continue the surveillance of the Trump campaign, Rosenstein’s reply was oddly procedural. “We sit down with a team of attorneys from the Justice Department who all review it and provide a briefing for us of what is in it,” he explained. “I have reviewed that one in some detail, and I can tell you sir that the information that is public about that doesn’t match with my understanding of the one that I signed. I don’t do the investigation. I am reviewing the finished product.”

This garbled response meant what exactly? Had he read the Carter Page warrant or not? He was asserting, simultaneously, that the Justice Department had told him what the FISA warrant was about and that the “finished product” had nothing to do with him. How did the public’s information not match Rosenstein’s information exactly? He didn’t seem interested in elaborating on that mystery.  

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) used his time not to ask questions but to ridicule the Mueller probe as a farce. “You have a counterintelligence investigation that’s become public. You have a criminal investigation that has become political. You have more bias than I have ever seen manifest in a law enforcement officer in the 20 years I used to do it for a living.”

Once Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) started to ask questions, the cordiality ended. “We have caught you hiding information,” he told Rosenstein. “Why did you hide the fact that Peter Strozk and Judge Contreras were friends? Why did you redact that in the documents you gave to us?”

Rosenstein was flustered. “I’ve heard you make those allegations publicly, on TV. Mr. Jordan, I am the deputy attorney general of the United States, OK? I am not the person doing the redacting. I’m responsible for responding to your concerns as I have. I have a team with them, sir, just a fraction of the team that’s doing this work and when you have brought issues to my attention I have taken appropriate steps to remedy them. So your statement that I am personally withholding information from you . . .”  

Jordan cut him off: “You’re the boss, Mr. Rosenstein.” Rosenstein continued: “That’s correct. And my job is to make sure that we respond to your concerns. We have. I appointed [John] Lausch, who’s managing production, and it’s my understanding that it’s actually going very well, sir.”

Since Rosenstein and Wray had been called to appear because they were slow-walking documents, Jordan chuckled: “And yet I think the House of Representatives is going to say otherwise.”  

Why was Rosenstein blaming his staff? Why had he threatened House Intelligence Committee staffers? Why couldn’t these officials find and produce all of Peter Strzok’s texts? What were they hiding? The best they could say was that they were trying to follow the rules and procedures of the FBI and the Justice Department. The idea that America’s top law enforcement officials consider the internal guidelines and policies of their institutions to be superior to Congressional oversight is an absurdity that was passed over in silence.      

Wray chimed in from time to time with his usual I really can’t talk about this sort of thing for [redacted] reasons but, rest assured, “we have referred a number of employees to the FBI’s Office of Personal Responsibility.”  And what could be more reassuring than that?

It fell to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to deliver the knockout blow. There’s “a double standard: the standard that the American people live under, and the standard that all of you live under.” He treated Rosenstein and Wray’s contempt citations now as a foregone conclusion. “If either of you are held in contempt, will you allow the U.S. attorney to bring that case before a grand jury pursuant to the law or will you, like your predecessors, object?” Rosenstein said that he would not block such a case, and so the trap closed over the deputy attorney general. If the House decided to hold them in contempt, they were in trouble.

By the time Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) was slated to ask his questions, Rosenstein’s self-confidence was long gone. In short order, Gohmert had Rosenstein admitting he didn’t know what former Assistant Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr was doing a few doors down from him; he didn’t know that Ohr’s wife was working for Fusion GPS; and he wasn’t sure which of his staff members had revised or reviewed the FISA warrants. Was this the same man who had his fingers in all the important pies? Really?

Of course, Rosenstein wanted to assure Gohmert that he really did understand his concerns. He provided a non-apology for not reading the FISA warrant: “What I signed was a renewal application. It had already been approved three different times by a federal judge. It was signed under oath by a FBI agent who attested that it was true. Now if he was wrong, we will hold him accountable. Let’s allow the process to conclude before we jump to conclusions.” What process was Rosenstein talking about? Was he referring to the inspector general’s  reports that he was busy watering down?  

The problem is that Rosenstein and Wray have too many scandals and not enough fingers. Were they the cream of law enforcement on top of all those pies, or were they hardly sure what was happening?

To assert simultaneously to Congress that you don’t know what’s going on under your watch; that you don’t read FISA warrants that you sign; that you cannot find the text messages of your lead FBI investigator; but that you’re sure that your staff is “first-rate” and that your “process” is so above reproach that you would counsel Congress against speculating is to enter the Bermuda Triangle of bureaucratic stupidity. Anywhere you turn, you get lost in answers that are not credible and in nonanswers that are incredible.   

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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