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Key players in Comey's ouster and the FBI's Russia probe in the spotlight on Capitol Hill

FILE - The heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) hold a press conference after meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Capitol Hill, Thurs. May 11, 2017. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

Members of the Justice Department were on Capitol Hill on Thursday addressing lingering concerns lawmakers have about President Donald Trump's decision to fire the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) James Comey during the investigation into possible collusion between members the Trump team and the Russian government ahead of the 2016 election.

In an open hearing with the leaders of the intelligence community, Comey's firing and its potential impact on both the Senate and Justice Department's Russia investigation were front and center. Comey was originally scheduled to address the hearing, but Acting Director Andrew McCabe stepped in to take his place at the last minute.

The very first question put to McCabe was from Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asking him to confirm the accuracy of President Trump's letter firing Comey. Trump asserted that he received assurances from the FBI director "on three separate occasions" that he was not under investigation. McCabe declined to answer that question.


In an interview with NBC News on Thursday, Trump repeated his claim that Comey told him once over dinner and twice in separate phone calls that he was not under investigation.

McCabe assured members of the Intelligence panel that unlike his predecessor, he would not be routinely updating the White House about the status of the investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to interfere in the presidential election. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the premise of the Russia probe as "fake news" and a "total hoax."

McCabe was asked by Vice-chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) to go on the record assuring the public that he would inform the Intelligence Committee of "any effort to interfere with the FBI's ongoing investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign."

The acting FBI director responded that he "absolutely" would.

There were some notable inconsistencies in McCabe's testimony before the committee, especially as members sought to clarify recent reports Comey's removal from office was preceded by a request for more resources to accelerate the Russia-Trump probe.

The New York Times first reported that Comey had requested additional resources for the Russia investigation only days before being fired. Asked by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) if the FBI had what was needed to conduct the investigation, McCabe assured the panel that "we have resourced that investigation adequately."

Democratic senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) expressed their concerns over possible resource deficits at the FBI in a letter to the Deputy Attorney General and acting head of the Russia investigation, Rod Rosenstein. Seeking to clarify recent press reports, the two requested any details related to "any request for increased resources" made by the Department of Justice or the FBI in order to complete the Russia investigation.

The most significant fallout from Comey's firing has been the growing suspicion that the Department of Justice and FBI could come under political influence from the Trump White House at a time when the president's associates are subject to an active counterintelligence probe. That is why many Democrats and a handful of Republicans have called for a special prosecutor at the Department of Justice to take over the Russia probe.


Sen. Warner is one of the leading voices demanding an independent special prosecutor to take the reins. He told Sinclair Broadcast Group on Thursday that the number of unanswered questions raised in Trump's firing of Comey are fueling what he sees as the need for a special prosecutor. "The only true way to get an independent investigation, is for a special prosecutor that will be appointed from the Department of Justice," he said.

A number of Republicans believe the move would be premature.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued that the appointment of a special prosecutor could stifle the ongoing congressional investigations of Russia "because a significant amount of information would now be denied on the basis of an ongoing investigation."

He further argued that any such appointment is premature and should be postponed until the Intelligence Committee concludes its final report.

"Let's lay out the facts," Rubio told reporters. "And on the basis of facts, people will make their own opinion about whether or not a special prosecutor is warranted. But I don't think we're there yet and we may not be."

Many Democrats are skeptical that an independent prosecutor would hamper the congressional investigations and are now looking to make the confirmation of a new FBI director contingent on a career Justice Department official appointing a special prosecutor.

Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) the number two Democrat in the Senate, told reporters, "I want to see the first decision be the selection of a special prosecutor before the selection of a [new FBI director.]"

The independence of the investigation has also been called into question because of the role Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein played in firing James Comey.

Rosenstein authored a 2 1/2-page memo referencing Comey's very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal as the pretext for firing the director. The letter was then released by the White House as justification for Comey's removal.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Rosenstein, after a 27-year career at the Justice Department, threatened to resign afterbeing cast as "a prime mover" in Trump's decision to fire Comey.

On Thursday, Sinclair Broadcast Group was able to question Rosenstein exclusively about the accuracy of that report. The deputy attorney general rejected the report, telling Sinclair, "I am not quitting."

Rosenstein was on Capitol Hill to meet behind closed doors with the chair and vice-chair of the Intelligence Committee. In a press conference following the meeting, Sen. Burr explained that the discussion had been scheduled prior to the shakeup at the FBI. Comey's dismissal "did not come up" in their discussion, nor did they "get into details about his [Rosenstein's] involvement" in Comey's firing, Burr said.

The chairman explained that the purpose of the meeting was to address the "great need to set up a process for deconfliction" and ensure that the requests for information being made in the course of the Senate's Russia investigation were not interfering with "anything that might be an active investigation" by the FBI.

Sen. Warner said he raised the issue of an independent prosecutor taking the place of Rosenstein who is now leading the Russia probe. Warner told reporters that Rosenstein took his request "under advisement."

Sen. Burr, who opposes a special prosecutor, was asked by Sinclair Broadcast Group if he is confident Rosenstein can lead the Russia probe. Burr responded that it is not up to members of the Senate to make that determination.

"If for some reason the DAG [deputy attorney general] determined he couldn't carry out his job, he would make a decision. We don't have the luxury of picking who we work with," he said.

The Senate is taking steps to press forward and put to rest some of the questions surrounding Comey's firing. The former FBI director was asked to meet with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee next week in a closed session. The chairman of the committee reported on Thursday that he has not yet gotten a response confirming Comey will attend.

The White House is also facing a pressing need to replace Comey. The acting director, Andrew McCabe's leadership at the Bureau is likely to be short-lived, especially in light of his political conflicts.

In January, the Department of Justice began an investigation of McCabe whose wife received campaign contributions for a bid for the Virginia State Senate from a close political ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is believed the nearly half-million dollar contribution may have jeopardized McCabe who then went on to help lead the Clinton email investigation.

The two Republican leaders on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), both told reporters today that the White House has not yet reached out to them about possible candidates to fill the top position at the FBI.

According to Sen. Tim Kaine, the dynamic around the dismissal of Comey means that Trump's pick to lead the FBI will undergo a "very hard" nomination process.

"The circumstances of the Comey firing will make this probably as searching a nomination process as any but a Supreme Court justice," Kaine said.

Even though Kaine suspects Trump fired Comey in an "attempt to cover up" the Russia investigation, he is confident that the Department of Justice investigation will move forward.

"They [the White House] could certainly slow it down. I don't think they'll be able to stop it."

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