Lawmakers hopeful about Russia probe
WASHINGTON — Connecticut’s Democratic lawmakers said they learned little new in separate briefings on the Trump-Russia investigation by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but they nevertheless expressed optimism that the probe is on the right course.
“He could have been more specific and forthcoming, and many of us were disappointed he was not,’’ said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., himself a veteran prosecutor in Connecticut an now a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In the closed-door Senate meeting Thursday, Blumenthal pressed Rosenstein on whether the investigation — now being conducted by independent prosecutor Robert Mueller, a former FBI director — would cover alleged obstruction of justice.
In Blumenthal’s estimation, such a focus is necessary to determine whether Trump campaign higher-ups — and possibly the president himself — did anything to impede the FBI investigation aimed at determining links between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence.
“My takeaway was the special prosecutor has the mandate to pursue obstruction of justice,’’ Blumenthal said.
The tug-of-war between Trump and congressional Democrats over the Russia investigation shifted into high gear last week when Trump abruptly fired the man in charge of the probe, former FBI Director James Comey.
Trump insisted he did it because of low morale at the bureau and a series of improper public pronouncements, starting with the news conference he called last summer to say agents were ending the probe of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
But Democrats, including those from Connecticut, questioned whether the Comey dismissal wasn’t rooted in Trump’s attempt to derail what he later termed “this Russia thing.’’
The firestorm ultimately led Rosenstein on Wednesday to appoint Mueller.
In the meeting with House members Friday, Rosenstein “tried to assuage congressional concerns,’’ said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn. “He did not achieve that objective, but it underscored importance of independent investigation and continuation of congressional inquiries into the broader issue of Russia’s interference in our election.’’
Such interference “should be a concern to every American of every political stripe,’’ Esty said stripe. “America and its allies would benefit from a deep dive, like the 9/11 commission.’’
The Rosenstein meetings were focused in large measure on whether Trump essentially used a memo written by Rosenstein on May 9 as the basis firing Comey that same day.
Trump’s dismissal letter to Comey stated that he had accepted the recommendations of Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the director be discharged. Sessions said his recommendation had been based on a memo from Rosenstein, which focused primarily on “wrong’’ conduct in publicly announcing the end of the Clinton email-server probe.
But Trump later said he was planning to fire Comey all along, suggesting to some the Rosenstein memo was little more than cooked-up pretext.
In the Friday meeting, Rosenstein told House members he knew Trump would fire Comey before he even wrote the memo. Nevertheless, he defended it, saying: “I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it.’’
Sen. Chris Murphy said the sequence of events suggested to him that Trump had dissembled on the real reasons for firing Comey.
“The letter that Trump delivered to Comey that said he relied on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general just isn’t true,’’ Murphy said.
Nevertheless, Rosenstein told lawmakers he decided to appoint Mueller as special prosecutor because “of unique details in the investigation and the fact that Americans’ faith in the FBI has been eroded,’’ Murphy said.