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Under Rod Rosenstein, what’s in store for Russia probe?

May 11, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
The firing of FBI Director James Comey has sparked accusations that President Trump is trying to derail the Russia investigation. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner offers background on the man leading the probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and William Brangham talks with former Justice Department official Amy Jeffress and former FBI official Frank Montoya Jr.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Until this week, much of the country had never heard of Rod Rosenstein. But he’s been thrust into the spotlight following the firing of James Comey.

Late today, leaders of the Senate issued an unusual invitation to invite him to meet with all 100 senators.

Margaret Warner brings us up to speed on the man charged with overseeing the investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election.

MARGARET WARNER: The author of the fateful James Comey memo appeared on Capitol Hill today. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Afterwards, they said Comey’s firing wasn’t discussed.

But Democratic Vice Chair Mark Warner remained skeptical.

SEN. MARK WARNER, D-Va.: I think it was a productive session, but I still have concerns about Mr. Rosenstein in terms of his role in the Comey departure.

MARGARET WARNER: Rosenstein has said privately he didn’t initiate Comey’s firing. Still, there are now nearly as many questions for the Justice Department’s number two as there are for the ousted FBI director himself.

Rosenstein graduated Harvard Law School in 1989. In 1997, he became an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland. In 2005, President Bush appointed him the state’s top federal prosecutor, a post he held until this year.

In January, President Trump nominated him for deputy attorney general.

At his hearing, senators of both parties praised him.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, R-Iowa: I know of no reason to question his judgment, his integrity, or his impartiality.

SEN. BEN CARDIN, D-Md.: Rod Rosenstein has demonstrated throughout his long career the highest standards of professionalism.

MARGARET WARNER: The Judiciary Committee also received dozens of letters supporting his nomination. One signed by more than 120 former U.S. attorneys said Rosenstein — quote — “epitomizes the ideal Department of Justice lawyer.”

He was confirmed 94-6. One no vote, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who said he’d use every possible tool to block any nominee for the position, unless there was a special counsel assigned to the Russia investigation.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March, so when Rosenstein was sworn in two weeks ago, that authority fell to him.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now let’s take a closer look at what lies ahead for that Russia investigation.

William Brangham is back with that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Comey’s firing has sparked accusations that the president is trying to derail the Russia investigation, or at least exert more control over its direction.

So, where does that investigation go from here?

Frank Montoya Jr. spent 26 years in the FBI. He oversaw national security and counterintelligence probes. And he joins us from Salt Lake City. And Amy Jeffress worked on national security investigations as counselor to former Attorney General Eric Holder and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.

Welcome to you both.

Frank Montoya, I would like to start with you.

You have been talking with a lot of FBI agents. Give us a sense of how they are responding to Comey’s firing.

FRANK MONTOYA JR., Former FBI Official: You have heard a lot of descriptions already in terms of being stunned or gut-punched.

Those are, I think, are apropos of the sense of — or the feeling that’s in the organization right now, that it really did come out of the blue. And they’re struggling with it. But, at the same time, they’re all professionals at what they do. They know how to put the mission first. And they will continue to move forward.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do any of the agents that you have spoken with believe that the firing was justified?

FRANK MONTOYA: Absolutely not. This was, again, out of the blue. It was one of those things where, even amongst those few critics in the organization, the independence of the FBI — and Jim Comey represented that well — the independence of the FBI is utmost in their minds. It’s the only way that they feel like they can go forward and do the work that they do.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amy Jeffress, I will turn to you.

What was your reaction to Comey’s firing?

AMY JEFFRESS, Former Justice Department Official: I absolutely agree with what Frank just said and what Andy McCabe testified to in Congress today, which is that my perception is that Director Comey did have the confidence of the agency.

And certainly the actions he took last summer and in the fall were controversial, and many people can criticize certain aspects of what he did, but I don’t think anyone can say that he wasn’t independent or that he wasn’t trying to do what he perceived as the right thing at the — at every step of the investigation.

And my sense is that the agents really felt like he was supportive of them and that he would have their back and that he wanted to let them do their jobs professionally and independently.

So, I think morale is not good. Agents are disappointed at his firing. But I also agree with Frank that the agents will continue to do their jobs as best they can, because that’s their tradition.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amy, what did you make of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter that catalogued a whole slew of criticisms of Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation?

AMY JEFFRESS: Well, the letter contained some criticisms that I think many people would agree with.

But, on the other hand, I didn’t see it as any real justification for Director Comey’s firing. And I don’t think that that firing was handled in a way that any career Department of Justice prosecutor, which Rod Rosenstein is, would have liked to see it handled. It just — it didn’t go according to the process that should have been followed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I’m going to ask you …

(CROSSTALK)

FRANK MONTOYA: I agree on that one, by the way. I would like to interject there.

I mean, this was really about independence. And that’s where the rubber meets the road on this and what is causing us a lot of concern right now within the FBI.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Frank, sticking with you then, what does this mean for the ongoing Russia investigation? I mean, there has got to be a new head of the FBI put into place. What does this firing and the subsequent events mean for that probe?

FRANK MONTOYA: Well, Andy McCabe put it very succinctly today. It will move forward. The men and the women of the FBI will do the right thing. They will continue in their mission.

And that includes investigating the interference, Russian interference, into our democracy and all things associated with that.

There is a lot of determination to get to the bottom of this. It was unfortunate that Jim is not going to be at the head of this investigation anymore, but they will continue to do what it is they have sworn an oath to do, and that is to pursue this and other investigations to the full extent.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amy Jeffress, I don’t know if you heard this, but Leon Panetta was just telling Judy Woodruff that he thinks that this firing and the way that it was handled just has undermined the credibility of the probe and that any subsequent FBI head is going to face similar pressures from the White House.

And he’s arguing, in essence, that a special counsel, a special prosecutor is what’s needed to really get this thing done.

AMY JEFFRESS: They have certainly strengthened the arguments for a special counsel. I absolutely agree with that.

I wouldn’t have said that that was necessary before the events of the last two days, but I think that firing Director Comey made that argument much stronger.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And Frank Montoya, would you agree with that as well, that this — I mean, yes, the attorney general, the deputy in the FBI said today he thinks, internally, it can go forward. But many other people argue someone from the outside has to do this.

FRANK MONTOYA: Well, it will go forward internally.

I mean, the question now is, there’s so much of this that is public, and so we’re talking about not public trust in the FBI, but in the integrity of the investigation.

And so I think that that is where the argument is going now. I would also add that, if there is a special counselor — prosecutor picked or selected, that it would be FBI special agents who would be conducting the investigation for him.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amy, what do you make of the idea that, if there is a new FBI director who is put into place, but that the political entanglements just can’t really be undone, that the pressures are going to be too great?

AMY JEFFRESS: Well, it’s going to be very difficult for whoever takes that position.

But I also worry that we are focusing perhaps too much and perhaps we have overly high hopes for the FBI investigation and the Department of Justice investigation, because what they’re doing is a counterintelligence investigation. The purpose of it is to really advise the intelligence community about what happens and what can we do to prevent this from happening again, what did the Russians do, what techniques did they use, how do we block them from attacking our democracy in this way in the future?

And so a lot of what they do is going to remain classified. They’re not going to be issuing a public report at the end of the day telling the American people, here’s what happened. We want to explain it to you.

That’s really not what the Department of Justice does. That’s why I think there is a very good reason for Congress to continue with its investigation, because I think they will have a greater role in doing that, in reporting to the public about what happened. And I think the public needs that at this point.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Amy Jeffress, Frank Montoya Jr., thank you both very much for being here.

FRANK MONTOYA: Appreciate it.

AMY JEFFRESS: Thank you.

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