Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein threatened to "subpoena" GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee during a tense January meeting involving committee members and senior DOJ/FBI officials, according to emails seen by Fox News documenting the encounter described by aides as a "personal attack."
That said, Rosenstein was responding to a threat to hold him in contempt of Congress - and the "threat" to subpoena GOP records was ostensibly in order for him to be able to defend himself.
Rosenstein allegedly threatened to "turn the tables" on the committee's aggressive document requests, according to Fox.
“The DAG [Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein] criticized the Committee for sending our requests in writing and was further critical of the Committee’s request to have DOJ/FBI do the same when responding,” the committee's then-senior counsel for counterterrorism Kash Patel wrote to the House Office of General Counsel. “Going so far as to say that if the Committee likes being litigators, then ‘we [DOJ] too [are] litigators, and we will subpoena your records and your emails,’ referring to HPSCI [House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] and Congress overall.”
A second House committee staffer at the meeting backed up Patel’s account, writing: “Let me just add that watching the Deputy Attorney General launch a sustained personal attack against a congressional staffer in retaliation for vigorous oversight was astonishing and disheartening. ... Also, having the nation’s #1 (for these matters) law enforcement officer threaten to 'subpoena your calls and emails' was downright chilling.” -Fox News
The committee staffer suggested that Rosenstein's comment could be interpreted to mean that the DOJ would "vigorously defend a contempt action" -- which might be expected. But the staffer continued, "I also read it as a not-so-veiled threat to unleash the full prosecutorial power of the state against us."
But really - Rosenstein appears to have been warning the GOP Committee members that he would aggressively defend himself.
G-Men Hit Back
A DOJ official said that Rosenstein “never threatened anyone in the room with a criminal investigation," telling Fox that the department and bureau officials in the room “are all quite clear that the characterization of events laid out here is false,” and that Rosenstein was merely responding to a threat of contempt.
The FBI, meanwhile, said that they disagree with "a number of characterizations of the meeting as described in the excerpts of a staffer’s emails provided to us by Fox News."
“The Deputy Attorney General was making the point—after being threatened with contempt — that as an American citizen charged with the offense of contempt of Congress, he would have the right to defend himself, including requesting production of relevant emails and text messages and calling them as witnesses to demonstrate that their allegations are false,” the official said. “That is why he put them on notice to retain relevant emails and text messages, and he hopes they did so. (We have no process to obtain such records without congressional approval.)”
Details of the encounter began to trickle out in early February, as Fox News' Greg Jarrett tweeted: "A 2nd source has now confirmed to me that, in a meeting on January 10, Deputy A-G Rosenstein used the power of his office to threaten to subpoena the calls & texts of the Intel Committee to get it to stop it’s investigation of DOJ and FBI. Likely an Abuse of Power & Obstruction."
A 2nd source has now confirmed to me that, in a meeting on January 10, Deputy A-G Rosenstein used the power of his office to threaten to subpoena the calls & texts of the Intel Committee to get it to stop it’s investigation of DOJ and FBI. Likely an Abuse of Power & Obstruction.— Gregg Jarrett (@GreggJarrett) February 3, 2018
Fox says that the emails they reviewed provide additional evidence of the encounter - while a former DOJ official said that the exchange may shed light on how the relationship between the agency and the Republican-led House committee has broken down in subsequent months.
“This is much worse than a deteriorating relationship – this is a massive breakdown in the system. A deputy attorney general does not make subpoena threats lightly. This is not the norm to say the least,” said Tom Dupree, former principal deputy assistant attorney general for the George W. Bush administration. “It’s hard to tell whether [Rosenstein] was sending a message to back off, or whether he was just trying to illustrate how invasive he considered the demands from Congress. But either way, it is a clear signal that the relationship is fractured, and it’s not clear how things will get repaired.”
The fight between the DOJ and Congressional investigators over the boundaries of Congressional oversight vs. the DOJ's apparent concern for protecting sources and methods (and evidence of potential crimes) has set the tone for a sustained dispute over records, and has set in motion the latest round of confrontations between Chairman Devin Nunes and Rosenstein - who has requested records related to the FBI's use of a confidential informant to spy on the Trump campaign.
Asked about the January meeting, Nunes provided a statement to Fox News noting they referred the incident to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office: “The Intelligence Committee considers staff concerns at the most serious level, especially those involving interactions with the executive branch. Based on the justified concerns expressed by our lead staff investigators, we referred this matter to the Speaker’s Office.” -Fox News
A source on the House Intelligence Committee told Fox that "going to the DOJ IG [Inspector General] is one of several steps under consideration" by the panel. Meanwhile, Dupree noted that current tension between the DOJ and Congress go well beyond traditional oversight wrangling.
"Rarely, if ever, has it deteriorated to this point where you have what appears to be threats going back and forth between the two sides," he said.