Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) first discussed removing James Comey as FBI director last winter, even before Sessions was confirmed as attorney general, Rosenstein told lawmakers Friday.
Rosenstein made his comments while briefing all House members on his role in last week’s firing of Comey, a day after meeting with senators on the same topic.
“In one of my first meetings with then-Senator Jeff Sessions last winter, we discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI,” Rosenstein said in his prepared opening statement. “Among the concerns that I recall were to restore the credibility of the FBI, respect the established authority of the Department of Justice, limit public statements and eliminate leaks.”
The discussion raises questions not just about President Donald Trump’s decision to oust Comey, but Sessions’ public statements about Comey’s performance.
During the presidential campaign, Sessions criticized the then-FBI director — but for the opposite reasons cited by Rosenstein in a controversial three-page memo laying out the rationale for firing Comey. Sessions said Comey was going too easy on Hillary Clinton, whereas Rosenstein wrote last week that Comey had treated her unfairly in his handling of the FBI’s investigation into her emails.
In October, Sessions praised Comey’s decision to alert Congress he was reopening the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the election. “He had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too,” Sessions, who was a top Trump campaign surrogate, told Fox Business at the time.
That appears to conflict with Rosenstein’s statement to House members on Friday that the two discussed the need to “respect the established authority of the Department of Justice” and “limit public statements.”
In the House briefing, Rosenstein defended his decision to write last week’s memo blasting Comey’s handling of the email investigation. The White House originally cited the memo as a driving factor behind the decision to fire Comey, but Trump later undercut that argument when he told NBC News that he had planned to fire Comey regardless.
Rosenstein told House members he learned on May 8 that Trump planned to fire Comey and “sought my advice and input.” He then wrote his memo, dated May 9, which he said was reviewed by several career attorneys at the Justice Department.
As they left the briefing, frustrated House Democrats said Rosenstein left many of their questions unanswered. They also complained about the meeting being classified, saying no classified information was discussed.
“This was a useless briefing and did not provide any more information to clarify the motivation of his memo-writing and only has, I think, caused more confusion and anger among members of Congress,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “He refused to answer questions.”
Added Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.): “It wasn’t particularly helpful. It wasn’t particularly classified.”
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.