Conservative House lawmakers introduced articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Wednesday, saying he’s led the Justice Department in “hiding” information from Congress on investigations into Russian election meddling and Hillary Clinton’s secret emails.
The Justice Department vigorously pushed back against claims of lack of transparency, saying it’s provided a historic amount of documents to Congress.
The impeachment resolution, aimed at the man who supervises special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, marks a major escalation in the months-long battle over the documents, which Republicans say are long-overdue.
“For nine months we’ve warned them consequences were coming, and for nine months we’ve heard the same excuses backed up by the same unacceptable conduct,” Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican and House Freedom Caucus chairman, said in a statement.
“Time is up and the consequences are here,” he said. “It’s time to find a new Deputy Attorney General who is serious about accountability and transparency.”
Mr. Meadows and his 10 co-sponsors accuse Mr. Rosenstein of “hiding information from Congress, withholding relevant documents, or even outright ignoring Congressional subpoenas.”
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Justice Department officials had no immediate comment on the impeachment articles, but a leading congressional Democrat quickly denounced them as interference on behalf of President Trump.
“These articles of impeachment against Rod Rosenstein were filed in bad faith and show extraordinary lengths to which House Republicans will go to protect Trump,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, wrote on Twitter.
“History will record these Members as willing accomplices in the most serious threat to the rule of law in a generation,” he concluded.
The impeachment articles won’t necessarily be voted on immediately, but the supports could use procedural moves on the House floor to force a vote late this week or when the House returns in September from its August recess, which starts Thursday.
Top Justice officials, along with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, met about two hours earlier Wednesday with key House Republicans to discuss the pace at which documents have been released.
The lawmakers at the closed-door meeting were Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and Judiciary chairman; Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and Oversight chairman; Mr. Meadows; and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican and a Freedom Caucus leader.
After the meeting but before announcing the impeachment effort against Mr. Rosenstein, Mr. Meadows said he remained concerned about the lack of candor from the FBI and Justice.
“Still today, nine months into it, and we don’t know how many documents are out that are responsive to the subpoena, we don’t know how many have been delivered that are responsive out of that universe and how many remain to be delivered,” he said.
Mr. Meadows added that there are also grave concerns over the need to learn more about the time sequence behind when Justice and FBI began to verity the dossier’s authenticity.
Mr. Gowdy though told reporters after the meeting that he was pleased with the Justice Department’s efforts.
Before the meeting, Justice Department officials defended their handling of Congress’s requests related to Russia-Trump-Clinton matters, which cover more than 880,000 documents.
The documents underlying the FISA warrants, and other materials under investigation, are considered some of Washington’s most secret papers and require the personnel reviewing them to have security clearances, in addition to a secure facility to display the information.
DOJ officials said they had establish dedicated rooms at their Washington headquarters for specific lawmakers investigating the issues.
Regarding the FISA warrant documents, they added that roughly 30 lawmakers from the House and Senate have viewed the materials. Of those, 14 were from either the Senate Judiciary or Intelligence committees.
They also noted that Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and the intelligence committee chairman who subpoenaed the documents last year, has not seen the materials himself, instead relying on fellow intelligence committee members, Mr. Gowdy, or his committee staff, to review the documents on his behalf.
A committee source later dismissed that point as just another bid to discredit Mr. Nunes’ efforts at forcing transparency on the Justice Department.
The spotlight on Justice and FBI transparency brightened considerably last weekend when officials released more than 400 pages of a largely unredacted application the FBI used to obtain a secret foreign-surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page during the 2016 presidential campaign.
That release came after mounting pressure from Mr. Nunes in addition to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits from the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
According to Mr. Nunes, the material shows that senior Justice officials under the Obama administration obtained warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to spy on Mr. Page based on bogus intelligence from an anti-Trump dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, and the opposition research firm Fusion GPS.
In February, Mr. Nunes released a controversial memo on what he called FISA abuses. In it he argued that because the dossier, which contains unproven and salacious claims about Mr. Trump and his Kremlin ties, was in part funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it politically tainted the FISA warrant on Mr. Page and amounts to an abuse of power.
Mr. Trump has made that argument for more than a year, in addition to denying any collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin. The president has also lashed out at the dossier’s connections to the FBI and DOJ as evidence that an “American deep state” — consisting of establishment Washington figures and agencies — is engaged in a “witch hunt” to undermine his presidency.
Many Democrats, the Justice Department and FBI officials, however, have defended the surveillance practices and called Mr. Nunes’ memo misleading.
Mr. Meadows also raised concerns Wednesday about FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was leading the Russia investigation at the time of the FISA applications.
Mr. Strzok later became known for his dislike of Mr. Trump in text messages to his extramarital lover, texted her before the first application that “We’ll stop it,” referring to the Trump campaign.
Earlier this month, Mr. Strzok confirmed during congressional testimony that the bureau received documents from DOJ official Bruce Ohr during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Ohr’s wife worked at Fusion GPS, the firm connected to the anti-Trump dossier.
During the hearing, Mr. Jordan pressed Mr. Strzok on how the FBI obtained the dossier used to obtain the FISA warrant for Mr. Page.
Mr. Strzok said he would “love” to explain it but an FBI attorney had forbidden him from doing so.
On Wednesday, Mr. Meadows said that during their meeting, an FBI attorney indicated Mr. Strzok could have answered those questions.
“I think it will be very probable that Peter Strzok will be called back and complete some of the questions that, specifically Jim Jordan asked,” Mr. Meadows said. “They agreed that some 90 percent of those unanswered questions Jim Jordan asked should have been answered.”