WASHINGTON – The probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion by associates of President Donald Trump is not a “fishing expedition,” the Justice Department official who launched it said.
In his first Sunday news-show appearance, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein declined comment on whether special counsel Robert Mueller, who’s leading the investigation, is using a federal grand jury to help collect information. He said if Mueller finds evidence of a crime within the scope of the probe, he can investigate.
Rosenstein, 52, appointed Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to lead the federal investigation in May after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.
In general, the presence of a grand jury doesn’t say anything about the likelihood of an indictment, Rosenstein said. “It’s just a tool that we use like any other tool in the course of our investigations,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“It’s an appropriate way to gather documents, sometimes to bring witnesses in, to make sure that you get their full testimony,” Rosenstein said.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Mueller’s probe — which he terms a “witch-hunt” — most recently at a rally in Huntington, West Virginia, on Thursday when he said, “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you won with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us.”
In recent weeks, Mueller has expanded the focus of the investigation from the 2016 election to a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses, as well as those of some the president’s associates, according to a person familiar with the probe. The president told the New York Times in July that if Mueller started to dig into his family’s finances, he’d cross a “red line.”
“The special counsel is subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice, and we don’t engage in fishing expeditions,” said Rosenstein, who has more than 25 years of experience working in the Justice Department through Republican and Democratic administrations.
Investigators are looking into the business dealings of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a White House adviser, and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, two other people familiar with the investigation said last week. All of the people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the continuing probe.
Mueller has asked the White House to preserve all communications related to a June 2016 meeting involving the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, along with Russian-American lobbyist and former Soviet counterintelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin.
Asked about Trump’s West Virginia speech, in which he said “prosecutors should be looking at Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails,” Rosenstein drew a line between the president’s public and private communications.
“If the president wants to give orders to us in the department, he does that privately,” Rosenstein said. “I can tell you, the president has not directed us to investigate particular people.”
As Trump settles in for an 17-day stretch at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort, two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, and Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, have introduced a measure — retroactive to cover Mueller’s appointment — that would shield special counsels from political influence.
Tillis, speaking on Fox, said there was “no question” the action was directed at Trump. “That’s why we put the effective date back to the hire of the current special counsel,” he said.
“It is in everyone’s best interest for Bob Mueller to be able to carry forward this investigation to its conclusion,” Coons said on ABC’s “This Week” in a joint appearance with Tillis.
The Senate proposal is based on “hypotheticals,” White House aide Kellyanne Conway said Sunday on ABC. “The president is not discussing firing Bob Mueller,” she said.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he doesn’t expect the proposal from Tillis and Coons to become law.
He added, though, that “for decades, Congress has ceded too much authority to the executive branch. And we should exercise our constitutional responsibilities seriously and with vigor.”