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  • Rosenstein FILE- In this March 7, 2017, file photo, then-Deputy Attorney General-designate Rod Rosenstein, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The author of a scathing memo that the White House used to help justify the firing of FBI Director James Comey is also overseeing a Justice Department investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a three-page rebuke of Comey's conduct, Rosenstein said the FBI director had usurped the attorney general's authority last year when he announced that the FBI was closing its investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email as secretary of state. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Friday, May 19, 2017 1:00 am

Deputy: No role in Comey firing

Trump denies ex-FBI chief's claim

Washington Post

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia – while adding the caveat that he can speak only for himself – and denied ever asking FBI Director James Comey to back off his agency's investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump spoke in the wake of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate any coordination between Trump associates and Russian officials.

“I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt, and there is no collusion between – certainly myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself and the Russians. Zero,” Trump said, at a joint news conference Thursday afternoon with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. “Believe me, there's no collusion.”

Asked whether he urged Comey – as the fired FBI chief said he did in notes written after a meeting with the president – to drop the Flynn investigation, Trump said, “No, no,” before ordering the media to move on to the “next question.”

Also Thursday afternoon, Rosenstein went to Capitol Hill and told the full Senate that the White House's initial account of Comey's firing was not accurate. He said he already knew Comey would be fired before he wrote a controversial memo that the White House initially used as its justification for the dismissal.

Rosenstein did not reveal any more significant details during the unusual 90-minute closed briefing with most of the 100 senators, according to interviews with several senators afterward.

Rosenstein did, however, emphasize to the senators the independent authority that the new special counsel – former FBI director and federal prosecutor Robert Mueller – has in the Russian investigation.

“If one thing is clear from the meeting we just had, it is that Mr. Mueller has broad and wide-ranging authority to follow the facts wherever they go,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “That gives me confidence and should give the American people some confidence.”

Although the meeting was held in a secure room in the Capitol Visitors Center where classified information can be discussed, nothing Rosenstein shared with the senators was “remotely classified,” according to one senator who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about the meeting.

“He could have shared what he told us in a public hearing,” the senator said.

Because of Mueller's wide scope in the Russian probe, Rosenstein referred several of the senators' questions to the new special counsel, frustrating many of the senators who wanted to learn more.

Rosenstein “was very careful about not going into any details surrounding the removal because he wants to give Robert Mueller the opportunity to make an independent decision” about how to proceed, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., as she emerged from the briefing.

Rosenstein received strong support from the Senate a month ago when he was confirmed by a vote of 94 to 6 to be the Justice Department's second-highest-ranking official. But his reputation has come under fierce attack in the past week over the memo he wrote about Comey.

Since Comey's firing May 9, the calls for Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel intensified, especially from Democratic lawmakers who said he could no longer be impartial in the Russia investigation.

Rosenstein had been put in charge of the probe as soon as he was confirmed because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. The Washington Post had reported on contacts he had with the Russian ambassador that he had not disclosed when asked about it during his Senate confirmation hearing.

In the Senate meeting, Rosenstein told the senators that, in fact, Trump had decided to fire Comey the day before he wrote his memo.

Why Rosenstein felt compelled to write the memo remains unknown. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Rosenstein told the senators that he was not pressured into writing it.

According to a person close to the White House, Rosenstein was upset about the narrative that emerged from the White House the evening of May 9. White House officials cast Rosenstein as the prime person behind the decision to fire Comey, even though Trump had already decided to terminate the director.

Rosenstein threatened to resign from the Justice Department because of the explanation that White House officials were giving reporters about the firing, said a person close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

By May 10, White House officials had backed off blaming Rosenstein for the firing, and the next day, Trump contradicted his own officials and told NBC News that the decision to fire Comey was his alone and that he was thinking of “this Russia thing with Trump” when he made it.

During Thursday's news conference, Trump contradicted both his own account and that of Rosenstein.

“Director Comey was very unpopular with most people,” Trump said. “I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.”

Trump had earlier in the morning lashed out on Twitter at the news of the special prosecutor, calling the move a politically motivated “witch hunt” by his Democratic rivals. The president's anger contrasted with a more measured written statement released by the White House on Wednesday evening, when Trump declared that a thorough investigation would find “no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.”