Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Congress Friday he stands by the memo he wrote bluntly criticizing FBI Director James Comey. But he made clear it was not his intention for President Donald Trump and other White House officials to use the document to justify firing Comey, which is what they have done.
In closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Thursday and Friday, Rosenstein said he wrote the memo after Trump told him one day before the May 9 firing that he wanted to dismiss Comey. Rosenstein said that though he was personally fond of Comey, "I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader."
The Justice Department on Friday issued the text of Rosenstein's opening remarks for the briefings on Capitol Hill. That was two days after Rosenstein named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has said he plans to nominate a new FBI director soon, and that had been expected before his departure Friday afternoon on his first foreign trip as president. However the White House said there would be no announcement Friday.
The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has drawn generally favorable comments from Democrats and from some Republicans as well. But lawmakers at both congressional sessions expressed frustration that Rosenstein would say little in answer to their questions about his actions — or others' — before Comey's firing.
The experience left some lawmakers, Democrats in particular, with less confidence in the Justice Department's oversight of Mueller's investigation.
"There was considerable frustration in the room," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., an Iraq war veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee. "This renewed my confidence that we should not have confidence in this administration. I don't think (Rosenstein) did a lot to bolster our confidence in him today."
The White House has struggled since Comey's firing to explain the chain of events that led to it and who exactly made the decision. Trump has insisted at times that the decision was his alone, but he also has pointed — as recently as Thursday — to the "very strong" recommendation from Rosenstein.
Rosenstein made it abundantly clear to the lawmakers that he drafted his memo only after Trump told him of his plans to dismiss the FBI director. Several senators had already disclosed that information after emerging from their briefing with him on Thursday, and he made the same points to House members.
"My memorandum is not a finding of official misconduct," Rosenstein wrote. "My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination." But Rosenstein added: "I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it."
The memo focuses on Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, particularly the FBI director's decision to divulge details to the public at various junctures. Rosenstein denounced that as "profoundly wrong and unfair."
House members and senators said Rosenstein in his briefings steered clear of specifics in answering questions about his appointment of Mueller but made clear the former FBI director, will have wide latitude to pursue the investigation, potentially including criminal charges.
Trump has reacted furiously to the appointment.
Trump, at a combative and complaining press conference Thursday, he fell short in trying to resolve questions about investigations into his campaign and his first four months in office.
Asked point-blank if he'd done anything that might merit prosecution or even impeachment, Trump said no — and then added of the lingering allegations and questions: "I think it's totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so."
The appointment of the special counsel indicates other believe that's still open to question.
In Rosenstein's meetings with lawmakers, he reiterated the scathing critique laid out in his memo concerning Comey's handling of the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server, including Comey's July news conference announcing that the FBI would not recommend charges.
"It explicitly usurped the role of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the entire Department of Justice," Rosenstein said of that public announcement. "It violated deeply engrained rules and traditions, and it guaranteed that some people would accuse the FBI of interfering in the election."
Rosenstein said that he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had "discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI" in one of their first meetings, and that he believed Comey had damaged the credibility of the bureau and the Justice Department through the Clinton case. Sessions has recused himself from the Trump-Russia probe, citing his close involvement in the Trump campaign last year.
Rosenstein denied media reports from last week that Comey had asked him for additional resources for his investigation before Trump fired him.
A number of House members left Friday's briefing frustrated that they hadn't learned more. Some still wanted a clearer understanding of why, exactly, he wrote his memo, but reported that despite being asked numerous times in various ways, Rosenstein would not elaborate.
At least one GOP lawmaker used the session to voice the view, embraced by Trump, that the entire investigation is a "witch hunt" against the president, according to two fellow Republicans who attended. They didn't identify the lawmaker who made the remark but said Rosenstein gave a neutral response. "His answer was everyone is free to characterize anything the way they wish," said Rep. Dave Trott, R-Mich.