The counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion by the campaign of President Donald Trump with Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections has become a criminal probe, several U.S. senators said after a briefing Thursday.
That revelation came after nearly the entire complement of the U.S. Senate attended a briefing with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a secure auditorium beneath the Capitol. The briefing came a day after Rosenstein had appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the probe.
“The takeaway I had,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “was that you need to treat this investigation as if it may be a criminal investigation. The biggest legal change seems to be that Mr. Mueller is going to move forward with the idea of a criminal investigation versus a counterintelligence investigation.”
Graham said Rosenstein did not explain why the investigation had changed. But the characterization suggested that the probe had moved from a general inquiry into whether there had been collusion to one that had identified possible suspects.
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Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also said Rosenstein had declined to provide details of the case, citing “the uniqueness of the investigation.” But even without specifics, he said, the briefing was “sobering.”
“As it became clear how little he was willing to talk about it, it also became clear how broad this investigation that Mueller is about to undertake actually is,” Murphy said.
Many of the senators leaving the hearing were reluctant to speak about what had been said. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., walked away with only an exasperated wave as his comment. One senator called the meeting “therapeutic.” But some details did emerge.
Rosenstein apparently did not address reports that Trump had tried to interfere in the case by asking then-FBI Director James Comey to shut down the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. But he disputed early White House claims that a memo Rosenstein had written that was critical of Comey had been the genesis of Trump’s decision to fire the FBI head.
“He did say that Comey was to be removed from office before he wrote his memo,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
The session capped an extraordinary 10 days in the capital that began with Comey’s abrupt dismissal May 9 and included an odd Oval Office meeting between Trump and two Russian officials, allegations that the president had shared sensitive intelligence with those officials and word that Comey had documented Trump’s efforts to persuade him to drop the case against Flynn in private memos.
The session itself underscored the historic nature of what is taking place. All 100 hundred senators had been invited to attend, though whether they all attended was unknown. The meeting itself was in a special constructed room beneath the Capitol designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping.
The meeting, at which all senators were free to ask questions and make statements, had been expected to be contentious as anger flared over Comey’s dismissal and Rosenstein’s possible role in it. But Mueller’s appointment apparently took some of the edge off.
One question that lingered, however, was how Mueller’s appointment and the change in the nature of the probe would affect the multiple congressional investigations underway in the matter. Graham, for one, predicted it would slow those probes.
Congressional investigators “will have to be very leery of crossing into Mr. Mueller’s lane,” he said. “Mr. Mueller will tell us what we can get and what we can’t.”
“There should be no concern with that,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. He noted, however, that the congressional probes would need to be respectful of the needs of the criminal investigation.
“There needs to be a relationship with that investigation where they can say with confidence, ‘This really is a problem for us,’ or ‘Hey, we’d rather you didn’t do it, but it’s not a problem,’ ” Blunt said.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Democrats should take a lesson from the appointment of a special counsel.
“Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for, because when you get it, all of a sudden you can’t get answers to things because now it’s an active investigation,” he said. “That’s the problem with a special prosecutor.”
Johnson said his biggest concern was that the special counsel’s probe would be “never ending.”
“I want to see the Senate Intelligence Committee get to their conclusion, issue a report so we can start addressing the challenges facing this nation,” he said. “It’s going to hamper our ability to get to the bottom of this quickly, I believe.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that Sen Thom Tillis of North Carolina did not attend. He did.
Rob Hotakainen contributed to this story.