By Matthew Schofield and Lesley Clark
WASHINGTON – Investigators into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections are now authorized to probe whether White House officials have engaged in a cover-up, according to members of Congress who were briefed Friday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
A Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic, confirmed that Rosenstein told members of the House of Representatives that the special counsel in charge of the probe, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, “has been given the authority to investigate the possibility of a cover-up.”
But he denied that Rosenstein had told Congress such a probe was underway, noting that Rosenstein had declined to provide details of what is being explored. Where the investigation goes would be up to Mueller, the Justice Department official said.
Even as members of Congress were mulling the possible expansion of the case into a cover-up probe, and its reclassification from counterintelligence to criminal, the scandal appeared to grow.
The Washington Post reported Friday afternoon that federal investigators were looking at a senior White House official as a “significant person of interest.” The article did not identify the official, though it noted that the person was “someone close to the president.”
A person of interest is someone law enforcement identifies as relevant to an investigation but who has not been charged or arrested.
And the New York Times reported that Trump had told visiting Russian officials in the Oval Office that firing Comey had taken pressure off the Russia probe.
Meanwhile, Comey has agreed to testify publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the committee’s senior members announced late Friday.
The announcement, issued jointly by the committee’s Republican chair, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, and its senior Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said Comey’s appearance would take place after Memorial Day.
Burr said that he hoped Comey “will clarify for the American people recent events that have been broadly reported in the media” _ a reference to news reports that he wrote private memos detailing meetings in which, the reports say, Trump asked him to drop the FBI’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Cover-ups have traditionally been a major part of investigations that have threatened previous administrations. Articles of impeachment leveled against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton included allegations of obstruction of justice, as they were suspected of trying to hide other wrongdoing. Special counsels are authorized to investigate any interference with their investigations.
“This is a thorough investigation of what happened in the 2016 election, and it can go anywhere,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, described the possibility of a cover-up as the third branch of an investigation that began as a look at Russian meddling in the election and broadened into whether members of the Trump campaign had cooperated in that effort.
The election interference aspect, which was first alleged in October in a report by the U.S. intelligence community, appears to be an accepted fact, Cummings said.
What’s left to be determined, Cummings said, is whether there was “collusion with the Russians, and the possibility of an attempt to cover up.”
Questions about a possible cover-up have ballooned in the days since the existence of Comey’s memos detailing his conversations with Trump was revealed.
Cummings called those memos particularly important after the Times’ report of Trump’s conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The Times said its report was based on a transcript of the Oval Office meeting, which Trump had the day after he fired Comey.
“This new report that President Trump openly admitted to the Russians that he ‘faced great pressure’ from the FBI’s criminal investigation that was ‘taken off’ when he fired Director Comey is astonishing – and extremely troubling,” Cummings said.
In a statement, the White House did not rebut the substance of the Times report. But it disputed that firing Comey would have altered the investigation. It added that the leak of the conversation, not its content, was the real story.
"The investigation would have always continued, and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it,” the statement said.
“Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”
As for the Post report, the White House said “a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.”
On Friday, members of Congress said, Rosenstein clearly defined his role in Comey’s dismissal, telling the assembly that while he had written a memo criticizing Comey’s flouting of Justice Department rules for his public revelation of aspects of the Hillary Clinton email probe, it was not intended as a justification for firing Comey. The members said he said he’d been told of the decision to fire Comey before he was asked to write the memo.
Rosenstein declined to discuss the timing of the memo and who had asked him to write it, saying the memo and its role in Comey’s firing were likely to be part of the investigation, which will now be led by Mueller, whom Rosenstein appointed special counsel on Wednesday.
“He refused to answer questions and he just kept pushing off everything onto Mueller,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who pronounced the briefing “useless.”
Despite such frustrations, members agreed that Rosenstein had received a warm reception from both Republicans and Democrats at the meeting, a development that they said showed not only praise for his selection of Mueller to oversee the probe but also a recognition that Republican resistance to an independent probe was futile.
“Everybody applauded,” said Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. “Well, almost everybody. Let’s say 95 percent applauded. Still, two weeks ago, that would not have happened.”
Cleaver said Rosenstein’s opening statement was “clear, concise” and had let those in the room know “this is a real investigation, looking into very real issues.”
“I came out of there knowing that I trust this deputy attorney general, that I trust this special counsel and while he didn’t answer many questions, he had a clear reason for not answering,” Cleaver said.
Republicans were more reluctant to share details of the briefing, citing its classified nature, but they said they expected Congress to continue its own investigations.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said clearly there might come a time when the special counsel thought the congressional investigation might interfere with his own probe. “But so far, there’s been no suggestion that we can’t move forward,” he said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said one of his biggest takeaways was that Rosenstein had said he had no evidence that Comey had asked for more resources for the investigation before he was fired.
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., sounded a note of caution, fearing the public won’t be told the investigation’s results if it falls short of criminal charges.
“If the investigation determines that (cooperation between Trump’s campaign and the Russians) happened but it doesn’t rise to the level not only of criminality but a case that can be made, how will the public ever know about that? A decision to not charge doesn’t necessarily give us any of that information,” he said.
– McClatchy Washington Bureau