WASHINGTON (Circa) — Members of the House Judiciary Committee interrogated Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray about the origins of the investigation into President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign in an intense and sometimes combative hearing Thursday.
The hearing was scheduled to review the recent Justice Department Inspector General's report which found multiple incidents of FBI agents expressing political bias while working on the investigations of 2016 presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Instead, the two Justice Department officials were confronted with allegations of obstructing congressional investigations and pressed defend the impartiality of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the Trump-Russia probe.
Democrats expressed frustration throughout the hearing, arguing their Republican colleagues were attempting to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation and the Justice Department more generally.
Rosenstein took the most heat from Republicans on the committee, many of whom have called for him to be held in contempt of Congress or impeached for failing to fully comply with requests for sensitive documents related to the Trump-Russia investigation.
After one member sharply criticized the deputy attorney general for not recusing himself from Mueller's Russia investigation, Rosenstein smiled ironically and replied, "I can assure you, if it were appropriate for me to recuse, I would be more than happy to do so and let somebody else handle this."
'WHY ARE YOU HIDING INFORMATION FROM CONGRESS?'
The most intense back and forth took place when Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, confronted Rosenstein to accuse him of personally interfering in Congress' oversight of the Justice Department.
Jordan asked, "Why are you hiding information from Congress?"
Rosenstein struggled to respond to the question, saying he believed DOJ was working as quickly as it could to fulfill the requests before he was cut off.
"I appreciate your concerns," Rosenstein said, attempting to interrupt Jordan, "but your use of this to attack me personally is deeply wrong."
After claiming the line of questioning was "not personal," Jordan persisted, "Mr. Rosenstein, we caught you hiding information from Congress."
He accused the deputy attorney general of redacting information from documents delivered to Congress and directing FBI agent Peter Strzok, not to answer lawmakers' questions during a roughly 11-hour deposition on Wednesday.
Jordan also brought up media reports claiming Rosenstein threatened to subpoena the "calls and emails" of congressional staffers on the intelligence committee. Rosenstein denied the reports and explained to Jordan that "there is no way to subpoena phone calls" eliciting laughter from the hearing room.
Asked why the deputy attorney general's testimony should be trusted over the statements of congressional staffers, Rosenstein replied, "You should believe me because I'm telling the truth and I'm under oath."
FIGHT FOR DOCUMENTS
GOP lawmakers were also eager to confront Rosenstein over the department's slow response to congressional subpoenas for documents related to the FBI's counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and the scope of the Mueller probe.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said that while the department had recently improved its responsiveness, the committee's oversight "has been hampered by both the FBI and DOJ's lack of consistent and vigorous production" of the documents requested by Congress.
According to FBI Director Wray, they have reviewed and produced more than 880,000 documents subpoenaed by the Judiciary Committee, but admittedly have not complied fully with Congress' request for roughly 1.2 million documents. In the past week, an additional 100 FBI employees were added to the project, Wray said.
Rosenstein added a team of "hundreds" of FBI officials is "working around the clock" to produce the materials for Congress.
Some of those documents include evidence related to the ongoing Trump campaign investigation, scoping documents outlining the parameters of the special counsel investigation and requests to identify confidential human sources used to contact members of the Trump campaign.
Typically, the Justice Department and FBI do not turn over such sensitive documents, but both Wray and Rosenstein insisted they are working to respond appropriately to Congress' requests while protecting sensitive information entrusted to the FBI and DOJ.
According to the Republican majority, they are not working fast enough.
As Wray and Rosenstein were testifying, the House of Representatives passed a resolution along party lines to compel the Department of Justice to turn over the remaining documents within seven days. If they do not produce the documents by July 6, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters "certainly contempt and impeachment would be in order."
Rosenstein seemed unfazed by the passage of a resolution, which is non-binding and expresses a sense of Congress.
"Whether you vote or not is not going to affect it [the production of documents]," he said, adding members of the Judiciary Committee will "get everything that's relevant that we can find and produce for you."
Rosenstein also appeared confident in light of the threats to impeach him or hold him in contempt.
Democrats argued the fight over document production was essentially a ruse to "get rid of" Rosenstein.
"They want you," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said, directly addressing the deputy attorney general. "They want to impeach you. They want to indict you. They want to get rid of you," he continued, saying it was an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation.
Rosenstein responded cooly, saying he was "happy to take the blame...it's one of my jobs."
MUELLER TAKING 'APPROPRIATE STEPS' TO MITIGATE STRZOK'S BIAS
Among the lingering questions brought to light in the inspector general report on the 2016 election was the issue of political bias among members of the FBI, particularly special agent Peter Strzok who sent a series of anti-Trump text messages while working on the Trump investigation.
Both Rosenstein and Wray concurred with the inspector general's assessment that Strzok demonstrated a clear, anti-Trump political bias, and the FBI director said he would not hesitate to hold people "strictly accountable" for their conduct.
A number of members implied Strzok's role in the FBI's counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign and his role on the special counsel tainted the entire investigation. Mueller removed Strzok from the investigation in the summer of 2017 after being made aware of the derogatory text messages.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, insisted, "If your root evidence is fairly called into question, everything that comes from that evidence is fairly called in question."
Rosenstein told lawmakers that Special Counsel Mueller "has taken appropriate steps" to mitigate against bias and prejudice potentially introduced into the investigation by Peter Strzok.
Both Wray and Rosenstein were also confronted with questions about President Trump's repeated claims that Mueller's team is systemically biased and comprised of "13 Angry Democrats."
When is Bob Mueller going to list his Conflicts of Interest? Why has it taken so long? Will they be listed at the top of his $22,000,000 Report...And what about the 13 Angry Democrats, will they list their conflicts with Crooked H? How many people will be sent to jail and......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
Both said they were not familiar with the "political registration" of the members of the special counsel.
When asked if they were personally among the "angry Democrats" the president referred to, the two Trump officials denied the characterization.
Wray explained he does not consider himself to be "an angry Democrat" nor is he a Democrat.
Rosenstein replied, "I am not a Democrat and I am not angry."
CONGRESSMAN DISCLOSES PARTS OF STRZOK'S CONFIDENTIAL TESTIMONY
When Peter Strzok was brought before the House Judiciary and Government Oversight Committees Wednesday for a roughly 11-hour deposition, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., instructed members of the committees not to discuss the agent's testimony in public.
Lawmakers reluctantly observed the gag order that Goodlatte assured them would be lifted soon, when the committee approved the release of Strzok's transcript.
On Thursday, Rep. Ratcliffe appeared to read parts of Strzok's confidential testimony, revealing that Robert Mueller never directly asked Strzok if his work on the investigation was tainted by his political bias.
Strzok reportedly described to the committee a 10 to 15-minute conversation he had with Mueller about his removal from the investigation because of his anti-Trump text messages.
"I was surprised that he [Strzok] said that neither Special Counsel Mueller or anyone on his team asked him about the texts or his expressed hatred of Donald Trump," Ratcliffe said.
The House Judiciary Committee questioned @FBI agent #PeterStrzok for hrs behind closed doors. GOP members now want use his testimony but refuse to hold an open hearing & allow him to testify.— Rep. Ted Lieu (@RepTedLieu) June 28, 2018
Release the transcripts, Chairman @RepGoodlatte. The American ppl deserve to hear this. pic.twitter.com/CjvggrS3qz
The congressman explained at length how he asked Strzok "at least a half a dozen times" if Mueller questioned him about the text messages or asked whether any of his decisions, actions or the evidence he collected may have been "corrupted or tainted" by his hatred of Trump.
"He repeatedly and unequivocally said no," Ratcliffe continued.
Democrats vehemently objected to Ratcliffe "quoting or characterizing" the witness' confidential statements. Some stood up and walked out of the room, others demanded the chairman release the transcript.
Chairman Goodlatte said the minority party was being "recalcitrant" and allowed Ratcliff to continue in spite of the alleged confidentiality of Strzok's testimony.