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Rosenstein to face Senate GOP grilling on Russia probe

Senate Republicans are planning to press former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on his oversight of the Russia investigation in the first in a series of oversight hearings that coincide with accelerated election-year efforts to scrutinize the FBI probe.

Rosenstein's appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee comes as allies of President Donald Trump take fresh aim at the investigation into ties between Russia and his 2016 campaign. They have pointed to newly declassified information to allege Trump and his associates were unfairly pursued and have drawn vindication from the Justice Department's decision to drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The hearing, called by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, is also an effort by Republicans to refocus public attention on the Russia investigation at a time when Trump himself is facing public scrutiny over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and unrest in American cities set off by the death of George Floyd.

Though a Trump appointee, Rosenstein has often been regarded with suspicion by many supporters of the president, and the president himself, for his role in the Russia investigation. His fate was most dramatically in limbo in September 2018 after it was revealed that he had floated the idea of wearing a wire inside the White House to record conversations with Trump, something he'll almost certainly be asked about Wednesday.

Soon after assuming oversight of the Russia investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel and then spent most of the next two years supervising his work, including approving key decisions, testifying in his defense and announcing criminal charges against Russians.

Mueller's report last year detailed significant contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign but did not allege a criminal conspiracy to sway the election. It examined about a dozen episodes for potential obstruction of justice by Trump, but did not reach a conclusion as to whether he broke the law, in part because Justice Department policy bars against the indictment of sitting presidents.

Allies of the president in the last year have moved aggressively to rewrite the narrative of the Russia investigation, particularly after a Justice Department inspector general report from last December that identified significant errors and omissions in FBI applications to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide.

Rosenstein approved one of those applications, and is expected to be pressed on that decision Wednesday even though the inspector general report said senior Justice Department officials were given incomplete information by the FBI.

He is also likely to be asked about his oversight of the guilty plea with Flynn, who admitted lying to the FBI about his conversations on sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period.

The Justice Department moved to dismiss the case last month, saying Flynn's contacts with the diplomat were entirely appropriate and that the FBI had insufficient basis to interview him.

Graham has also questioned whether Mueller should have been appointed at all.