Members of the Trump White House might need to lawyer up.
A day after appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein travelled to Capitol Hill to brief the entire Senate on the status of the investigation and what comes next.
The bipartisan consensus afterward is that the Trump-Russia investigation has taken on a new level of seriousness.
"It was a counterintelligence investigation before now. It seems to me now to be considered a criminal investigation," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he believed the special counsel "hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed up, not unified country." He also assured the audience at a separate event that, "believe me, there's no collusion." But at the same time, White House officials have been discussing bringing in additional legal counsel to deal with the growing probe, according to the New York Times.
Rosenstein also assured the senators that there would be no meddling or curtailing of the special counsel, even though the Department of Justice technically has the ability to do so.
"[Rosenstein] said over and over again that Mueller is going to draw the scope of this investigation, that Mueller is going to have the resources, that Mueller is not going to be interfered with by him or the Department of Justice," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.
Durbin and other Democrats complained, however, that Rosenstein refused to answer many of their questions and did so by citing the seriousness of the investigation. "I don't know all the facts," said Democratic Sen. Cory Booker but added that "it was good to hear from him directly and not through the media filter."
There was also concern among the senators that this new phase of the investigation would lead to a shroud of secrecy leaving them and the public in the dark. "[O]ne of the big losers in this decision is the public," Graham said and added that he worried lawmakers would have trouble getting responses to subpoenas delivered to potential witnesses or convincing them to testify in a public congressional hearing because they'd be more likely to plead the fifth to avoid incriminating themselves.
In the meeting, Rosenstein also cast further doubt on the White House's initial explanation for why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9. White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, initially said that Trump only fired Comey on Rosenstein's recommendation — a contention supported by Trump's signed termination letter to Comey, which cited Rosenstein's memo as the rationale to dismiss the director.
But Trump almost immediately undermined that explanation in an interview with NBC News, saying, "Regardless of the recommendation I was going to fire Comey." Trump muddled the waters further on Thursday, when he again cited Rosenstein's memo as one of the reasons he fired Comey.
But Rosenstein contradicted the White House's original explanation, according to some Democratic senators. "[Rosenstein] learned that Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo," Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri told reporters.
Others argued that Rosenstein was not so definitive on the timeline. "I'm not sure he addressed that with the level of clarity most people wanted," Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said, echoing what's become a common refrain in Washington these days.