Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein testified Tuesday that if the president ordered him to fire the special counsel handling the Russia investigation, he would only comply if the request was “lawful and appropriate.”
Rosenstein was answering questions from lawmakers regarding comments Monday from Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of Donald Trump, that Trump might fire Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller was recently appointed to lead the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein, who has been on the job for six weeks, said only he could fire Mueller, and only if he found good cause to do so. He described Mueller as operating independently from the Justice Department in his investigation.
Asked what he would do if the president ordered him to fire Mueller, Rosenstein said, “I’m not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders.” He added later: “As long as I’m in this position, he’s not going to be fired without good cause,” which he said he would have to put in writing.
“If there were good cause,” I would consider it,” Rosenstein testified. “If there were not good cause, it wouldn’t matter to me what anybody says.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Tuesday he had confidence in Mueller, and dismissed reports that Trump might fire Mueller as “rumors.”
“There’s no debate that’s going on here,” Ryan said after a reporter asked about suggestions from Trump friends Ruddy and Newt Gingrich that Mueller could be axed.
“You’re creating a debate that’s not happening,” interjected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who stood beside Ryan at a news conference held after a House GOP conference meeting at the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers also asked Rosenstein whether it was appropriate for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to be involved in the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey given Sessions’s recusal from the Clinton email investigation, which he offered because of his role on the Trump campaign. Rosenstein wrote a memo to Sessions on Comey, which was then used by the administration to justify firing the director for his handling of the Clinton case.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) asked Rosenstein: Why would the deputy attorney general have written a memo to Sessions that was “exclusively” about a matter from which Sessions was recused?
“I don’t think that’s a question for me to answer,” Rosenstein responded. He later noted that it was up to Mueller to determine whether the issue might be part of his investigation, and he thought Mueller “ought to review that.”
Rosenstein was likely referring to the possibility that Mueller would investigate whether Sessions violated his recusal or whether Comey’s firing might have been an effort to obstruct justice.
In addition, lawmakers wanted Rosenstein to spell out the scope of Sessions’s other recusal, specifically with regards to the Russia investigation, which Sessions announced after reports emerged that he had not fully disclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
“I know what we’re investigating and he does not,” Rosenstein said to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii.).
Rosenstein was testifying in place of Sessions, who over the weekend canceled his own appearance before the committee and instead agreed to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That hearing will be public and is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m.
Lawmakers were eager to ask Rosenstein about whether the special counsel was safe from being fired by the president after Ruddy made his provocative comments on PBS’s “NewsHour” that Trump was “weighing” whether to dismiss Mueller.
Ruddy had been at the White House the same day, though White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he did not meet with the president. Ruddy seemed to derive his assessment at least in part from comments Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal, made over the weekend on ABC News’ “This Week.
Sekulow had said he was “not going to speculate” on whether Trump might remove Mueller but added he “can’t imagine the issue is going to arise.”
Spicer did not outright discount the notion of removing the special counsel, but he noted Ruddy was not a spokesman for Trump.
“Chris Ruddy speaks for himself,” Spicer said.
Later Tuesday afternoon, Democratic lawmakers intend to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his meetings with the Russian ambassador and the firing of former FBI director James B. Comey when the former Alabama senator testifies Tuesday.
The afternoon p.m. hearing will be the first time that Sessions is questioned by lawmakers since January when he testified during his confirmation hearing that he did not communicate with any Russian officials during the presidential campaign, when Sessions acted as an adviser to Trump. He had to correct that assertion after The Washington Post revealed that Sessions twice met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign and did not disclose that to the Senate.
Sessions then recused himself in March from overseeing the FBI’s Russia probe and delegated that authority to his new deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein. Rosenstein last month appointed a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.
Sessions was supposed to testify before the appropriations committees, as past attorneys general have, but on Saturday, Sessions wrote the chairmen of both committees and said he was sending his deputy attorney general to testify in his place.
“In light of reports regarding Mr. Comey’s recent testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it is important that I have an opportunity to address these matters in the appropriate forum,” Sessions wrote. “The Senate Intelligence Committee is the most appropriate forum for such matters, as it has been conducting an investigation and has access to relevant, classified information.”
It was unclear over the weekend if the hearing would be open or closed, but late Monday morning, the committee’s chair and vice-chair, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), announced that the hearing would be public.
Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama for 20 years, is expected to face tough questions from his former colleagues on a number of fronts that he has never had to publicly address in detail.
Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.