The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), hastily exited the hearing they were chairing Thursday morning on “worldwide threats” to huddle with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Behind closed doors, they discussed the fate of the FBI and the Senate’s respective probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
When they emerged, they announced to dozens of reporters that they had made arrangements for both investigations to move full steam ahead.
“Since the committee has an investigation going on that is very similar to what the Department of Justice has going on, we felt there was a great need to set up a process for deconfliction,” Burr said. “So when we have witnesses we need to talk to, we made sure we weren’t stepping on top of anything that might be an active investigation.”
The meeting came amid new scrutiny of Rosenstein, who wrote a memo that the Trump administration cited Tuesday as justification for terminating former FBI Director James Comey.
Echoing concerns voiced by his fellow Democratic lawmakers about Rosenstein’s impartiality , Warner told reporters Thursday that he said in the meeting that an independent special counsel should take over the Russia investigation going forward.
“I have concerns about Mr. Rosenstein,” Warner said. “I expressed that concern to Mr. Rosenstein and he took it under advisement.”
The exact nature of Rosenstein’s involvement in Comey’s firing remains unclear, as President Donald Trump contradicted in a TV interview the official explanation for the dismissal that his staff issued earlier this week. While the White House initially claimed that they had merely acted on Rosenstein’s recommendation to get rid of Comey, Trump boasted Thursday that he was ready to fire Comey regardless of the DOJ’s advice.
The Justice Department is also denying that Rosenstein threatened to resign after Trump cited him as the key decision-maker in Comey’s ouster, as several outlets have reported. Several senior lawmakers are now demanding clarification from Rosenstein about what exactly happened in the lead-up to Comey’s dismissal; whether and why he threatened to quit; and whether they can trust him to remain independent from Trump going forward.
But after meeting with Rosenstein on Thursday, Burr and Warner insisted those issues did not come up in their discussion.
“That wasn’t the purpose of this meeting,” Burr said. “We didn’t get into the details of his involvement.”
Both senators seemed eager instead to focus on touting the progress of their own Russia probe, which for weeks has been hampered by insufficient staffing and partisan bickering. Amid the chaos over at the FBI, the committee took a leap forward this week by issuing a subpoena for documents from Trump’s ousted national security adviser, Mike Flynn.
“I hope it’s our last [subpoena] because everything else might be voluntary,” Burr. “But we’re willing to go to whatever basket of tools we feel is necessary.”
Warner added that while he has concerns about the pace of the committee’s investigation, he chalks that up not to Republican or Trump administration obstruction but to being “in uncharted territory.”
“There’s no playbook for how to share this kind of intelligence information with a congressional committee,” he said.
The already tense press conference was then interrupted by news that President Trump had given a TV interview calling Comey a “grandstander” and a “showboat,” forcing the Intelligence Committee leaders to react in real time.
“The lion’s share of FBI employees respect the former Director,” Burr said, praising Comey’s “professionalism.”
Warner, who sighed and shook his head as a reporter read the excerpts from the interview Trump gave to NBC’s Lester Holt, unloaded on the commander in chief.
“Frankly, I’m offended at the president’s comments,” he said. “This is part of a continuing pattern of disrespecting the men and women who serve in our intelligence community.”