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Special Counsel Confronts Task Of Overseeing FBI's Russia Investigation

May 18, 2017
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Who knew what before the firing of FBI Director James Comey? Are there more Comey memos of conversations he had with President Trump, and just how is this special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election going to work anyway? The man believed to have some of the answers to these questions was on Capitol Hill today for a rare closed-door briefing of the full Senate.

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In a moment, we'll hear some reaction from one lawmaker, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, but first a little more about what happened after that briefing today from Rod Rosenstein. NPR's Geoff Bennett joins us now. And Geoff, senators weren't shy about coming to the microphones after they heard from the deputy attorney general. What did they have to say?

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Audie, they talked a lot about the timing and the series of events that led to President Trump's abrupt firing of James Comey, the former FBI director. That was the initial point of today's briefing, which was on the books well before the special counsel announcement. But here's the thing. Some Democrats were and still are convinced that the president forced Rosenstein to write the memo which was at one point used by the White House as justification for Comey's dismissal. So today was Rosenstein's chance to answer questions about that and frankly defend his reputation. Now, some of what the senators learned was classified, but I think the public takeaway is this detail that Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill shared with reporters.

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CLAIRE MCCASKILL: He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Say that again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can you...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He what?

MCCASKILL: He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to him writing his memo.

BENNETT: Now, the he that she refers to is the deputy attorney general. Now, Republican Senator Marco Rubio was asked that same question. He said Rosenstein's answer wasn't clear. But Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told reporters that Rosenstein said explicitly that he knew Comey was going to be fired the day before he wrote the memo. Durbin also said that Rosenstein wouldn't say who asked him to write the memo because Rosenstein didn't want to affect the special counsel investigation.

CORNISH: So help us read between the lines. Why make a point to say that?

BENNETT: Well, we know from some reporting that Rosenstein wasn't happy about having to shoulder the blame for Comey's firing when the White House initially used his memo as a pretext for it. But I think if McCaskill's account is true, it at the very least further discredits the Trump administration's original claim that Trump acted on the recommendation of the Justice Department to fire Comey. And of course, as you well know, Trump later admitted that he was going to fire Comey regardless of what anyone said. And Democrats in particular still want to know why. What was the president's rationale?

CORNISH: So as we've mentioned, Robert Mueller, former FBI chief, has been tasked with overseeing the Justice Department's investigation over whether or not there were potential ties between the Russian government and Trump campaign associates. So how will that investigation, the special counsel differ from the ones already underway in Congress?

BENNETT: Well, the committee members I've spoken with say they have a different mission entirely. The four congressional committees are largely counterintelligence investigations focused on what role Russia played in the 2016 presidential election, that alleged Russian interference. But to be blunt about it, Robert Mueller can put people in prison, Audie. Congressional committees can't prosecute. Only the Department of Justice can do that if the FBI finds that a crime was committed. And of course it may not. We should say that.

But you know, the distinction is that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is focused on the potential ties between the Russian government and the Trump presidential campaign. But here's something that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pointed out after the briefing. He said that because Mueller is moving ahead with a criminal investigation, it really diminishes what the congressional committees can accomplish.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Geoff Bennett. Geoff, thanks so much.

BENNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.