CAPITOL HILL —
The House Intelligence Committee will probe Russian interference into the U.S. election in public for the first time during a hearing March 20, committee chair Representative Devin Nunes announced Tuesday.
Among those invited to give public testimony are James Comey, the current director of the FBI who has been at the center of the controversy regarding his involvement in influencing the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails; Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency; and John Brennan, former CIA director.
"I want to conduct as many of these hearings in the open," Nunes told reporters. "Because of the seriousness of the accusations involved on all sides of this issue, we want to make sure we hold as many of these hearings out in the public."
Nunes said the list of seven people invited to testify — including former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — would be expanded upon or modified as needed. The list had been agreed upon on a bipartisan basis.
Fired National Security adviser Michael Flynn is invited to attend the hearing but was not included on the list of witnesses considered to have "direct" information on the investigation, Nunes said.
President Donald Trump heightened the firestorm surrounding the Russia investigation when, late last week, he tweeted that phones at his New York high-rise building had been wiretapped at the behest of former President Barack Obama, a charge labeled "simply false" by an Obama spokesman.
"He's the president of the United States, not me, so he can do what he likes," Nunes said of Trump's tweets over the weekend.
"I think it’s a valid question — if it was a question. Look at General Flynn — why was he being recorded? Was it incidental like we all assume or was it something else? Was there any other additional recording going on?" Nunes said, noting the House Intelligence Committee planned to looked into the broader issue of phone surveillance during the election even before the White House request.
Nunes said he did not plan to subpoena Trump's unreleased tax returns as part of the committee's investigation, citing concerns about the precedent that move would set for the privacy rights of all Americans.
Senate Russia probe
A Justice Department nominee who would oversee a federal investigation of Russian meddling into last year's U.S. election declined to commit to appointing a special prosecutor to probe contacts between Moscow and Trump's inner circle.
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, tapped by the president to serve as deputy U.S. attorney general, told a Senate panel Tuesday he would have to examine the case before making a determination, but that he would be “willing to appoint a special counsel” whenever one is appropriate.
During his confirmation hearing, Rosenstein found himself at the center of partisan crossfire at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats insisted that last week's recusal by Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the Russia probe did not go far enough to ensure the absolute independence of the probe.
“The investigation into Russia's interference could very well involve officials in the Trump administration,” said the committee's top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California. “As has been done in the past, a special prosecutor should lead this investigation.
“I believe it should be a respected prosecutor, someone free of any partisan or political background, someone who has a reputation for integrity and impartial decision-making and who is independently selected not by the attorney general,” Feinstein added.
Republicans push back
“Any talk of a special counsel is premature at best,” said the committee's chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. “More importantly, any insinuation that Mr. Rosenstein lacks the impartiality or professionalism necessary to handle these matters is out of line. He's a career civil servant who has served with distinction in both [the] Bush and Obama administrations.”
While not ruling a special prosecutor in or out, Rosenstein did speak in general terms about how he would approach the matter, if confirmed.
“As far as I'm concerned, every investigation conducted by the Department of Justice is an independent investigation,” he said. “I know this [Russia probe] is the issue du jour [of the day] on Capitol Hill, but I anticipate that if I were the deputy attorney general we'd have a lot of matters coming before the department over time and I would approach them all the same way. I would evaluate the facts and the law.”
Graham asks about wiretap
Trump's tweeted claims of phone wire-tapping were also a focus at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Rosenstein if he knew of any way that Obama could have ordered a wiretap without a court's approval.
“No, I do not,” the nominee responded.
“As a matter of fact, he [Obama] could not,” Graham continued. “No president can just unilaterally say, 'Go wiretap that American citizen,' right?, without court approval.”
“I would hope and I would agree with you that that would not happen,” Rosenstein responded a moment later.
Democrats pressed the point, saying that if the Department of Justice can clear up the matter for the American people by confirming or denying Trump's allegation, it should do so.
“I would assume that, if the president is not telling the truth about this, those who know the truth would say what the truth is,” said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Has served since 2005
Originally tapped by former President George W. Bush, Rosenstein has been a federal prosecutor in Maryland since 2005. His service continued during the Obama administration, making him the longest-serving current U.S. attorney.
Last week, Attorney General Sessions, a close Trump confidant, recused himself from the Russia probe after news broke that he had met with Russia's ambassador to the United States last year. In such situations, the task of overseeing an investigation falls to the deputy attorney general — a post Rosenstein would assume if confirmed by the Senate.