Even as members of Congress were mulling the possible expansion of the case into a cover-up probe, the scandal appeared to grow.
WASHINGTON — Investigators into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections are authorized to probe whether White House officials have engaged in a cover-up, according to members of Congress briefed Friday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
A Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that Rosenstein told House members 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 under way, 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.”
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A person of interest is someone law-enforcement identifies as relevant to an investigation but who has not been charged or arrested.
Among Trump’s senior White House advisers are several former campaign officials, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. In March, Kushner volunteered to answer lawmakers’ questions about meetings he had with Russian officials during the transition.
Meanwhile, former FBI Director James Comey has agreed to testify publicly before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the committee’s senior members said 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 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 ballooned in the days since the existence of Comey’s memos detailing his conversations with Trump was revealed.
In response to The Post report Friday, the Trump administration 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 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. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. “Well, almost everybody. Let’s say 95 percent applauded. Still, two weeks ago, that would not have happened.”
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.