‘Obamagate’: Senate hearing with former deputy AG Rosenstein gives glimpse into Republicans’ aggressive 2020 strategy

Griffin Connolly
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 03: Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss the FBI's "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation in the Dirksen Senate Office Building June 3, 2020 in Washington DC. The Republican-led panel is exploring issues raised with warrants issued in the FBI investigation, code-named "Crossfire Hurricane" at the time, of Trump campaign officials in the 2016 presidential race. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

New slate of hearings on the Russia investigations — same old song and dance.

Ex-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday found himself back in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he largely defended decisions he made while overseeing parts of the FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence operation probing possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and his subsequent appointment of former special counsel Robert Mueller to pick up that investigation.

Mr Rosenstein’s testimony shed little new light on an issue — alleged politically motivated malfeasance during the Russia investigations — about which congressional Republicans on Judiciary panels in both the House and Senate have raised alarms despite shaky evidence for nearly two years.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin likened the hearing on Wednesday to Major League Baseball re-runs that have been playing on TV during the Covid-19 crisis in lieu of live games.

“I'm wondering today, the people who have tuned into this hearing over C-SPAN … must think they’re watching a rerun, a classic hearing from several years ago on the Mueller report,” the Illinois Democrat said.

What the hearing on Wednesday did do is provide a window into how Republicans see the broken Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act system and re-litigating Mr Mueller’s investigation as a winning political issues to highlight throughout the summer leading up to Donald Trump’s November matchup against former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

The FBI’s 2016 counterintelligence operation — codename: “Crossfire Hurricane” — was run by “people who hated Trump and people who had political bias, an agenda to destroy him before he was elected, and after he was elected,” Chairman Lindsey Graham said, parroting Mr Trump’s “Obamagate” conspiracy theory.

“We're going to get to the bottom of it,” the South Carolina Republican said.

Republicans are apparently not worried about the boxes of political ammunition provided to Democrats by Mr Mueller’s report, which spells out “evidence of numerous links” between officials on Mr Trump’s campaign — including his son Don Jr and son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and individuals with or claiming ties to the Russian government.

Mr Mueller concluded in his report that even if prosecutors could convince a jury Trump campaign officials engaged in criminal behaviour by meeting with Russian nationals for dirt on Hillary Clinton, “a prosecution would encounter difficulties proving that campaign officials or individuals connected to the campaign willfully violated the law,” a co-requisite for conviction.

Translation: Mr Kushner, Mr Trump Jr, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have broken the law at their June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians — they just didn’t know they’d possibly broken the law.

But so long as Republicans can reasonably claim “no collusion,” they’re happy to let Democrats continue airing grievances about the 2016 Trump campaign’s ethically dubious relationship with Russians while continuing to push their own message about “deep state” bias against Trump.

And while Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded in a December 2019 report that political bias did not drive the FBI’s 2016 Russia investigation, Mr Horowitz did find that FBI officials committed multiple errors in their 2016 FISA warrant applications to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

Mr Horowitz’s subsequent audit of 29 past FISA warrant applications has discovered the problem is systemic, with each of those applications containing errors, including one with as many as 65.

Mr Graham has said he plans to release the findings of his probes into the issues with FISA, Crossfire Hurricane, and Mr Mueller’s appointment in October, just in time for them to marinate during the final weeks leading up to the 3 November election.

As for Mr Rosenstein’s testimony on Wednesday, the former DOJ No. 2 told lawmakers he would not have underwritten the FBI’s 2016 FISA warrant applications to surveil Mr Page if he had known then what he learned in the spring of 2019 from Mr Mueller’s report that found no prosecutable evidence of a conspiracy with the Russians.

But there was enough “reasonable suspicion” about other Trump aides possibly colluding with Russians to continue investigating such claims when he appointed Mr Mueller as special counsel in May 2017.

Mr Rosenstein subsequently oversaw Mr Mueller’s 22-month investigation that produced nearly 200 criminal charges against dozens of US citizens and Russian nationals.

"I believe at the time, senator, and I still believe it was the right decision under the circumstances," Mr Rosenstein said of appointing Mr Mueller in response to questioning from Mr Graham.

"I think it's important to establish that an independent investigation found that the Russians sought to interfere in the election and that no Americans conspired with them,” he said on Wednesday.

Defending the probe from 2017 through 2019 from Republican criticism was a contentious saga for Mr Rosenstein.

In the summer of 2018, 11 House Republicans led by then-House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows — Mr Trump’s current chief of staff — moved to impeach the deputy AG for allegedly withholding documents about the probe from Congress.

But we knew all that already.

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