Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein visited the White House in December seeking President Donald Trump's help. The top Justice Department official in the Russia investigation wanted Trump's support in fighting off document demands from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.
But the President had other priorities ahead of a key appearance by Rosenstein on the Hill, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Trump wanted to know where the special counsel's Russia investigation was heading. And he wanted to know whether Rosenstein was "on my team."
The episode is the latest to come to light portraying a President whose inquiries sometimes cross a line that presidents traditionally have tried to avoid when dealing with the Justice Department, for which a measure of independence is key. The exchange could raise further questions about whether Trump was seeking to interfere in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia and obstruction of justice by the White House.
At the December meeting, the deputy attorney general appeared surprised by the President's questions, the sources said. He demurred on the direction of the Russia investigation, which Rosenstein has ultimate authority over now that his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has recused himself. And he responded awkwardly to the President's "team" request, the sources said.
"Of course, we're all on your team, Mr. President," Rosenstein told Trump, the sources said. It is not clear what Trump meant or how Rosenstein interpreted the comment.
The Justice Department declined to comment for this story. The White House did not comment.
Rosenstein's meeting with the President came as Rosenstein prepared to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. Trump appeared focused on Rosenstein's testimony, according to a source briefed on the matter, and he brought it up with the deputy attorney general.
As a further sign of the President's focus on Rosenstein's testimony, one of the sources said Trump also had suggested questions to members of Congress that they could ask Rosenstein.
One line of inquiry Trump proposed lawmakers ask about was whether Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election because Mueller was not selected as FBI director. CNN has reported that Trump has been venting to his aides about Rosenstein in recent weeks and even raised the possibility of his removal. Sources say Trump believes Rosenstein was upset Mueller wasn't selected as FBI director and responded by making him special counsel. It does not appear those questions were asked of Rosenstein at the hearing.
Rosenstein's December 13 appearance before the committee included strong backing for Mueller. He also pushed back at Democrats' questions about the President's demands for loyalty.
"As long as you are following your oath of office, you can also be faithful to the administration," he testified.
At the hearing, Rosenstein repeatedly declined to say whether Trump had ever asked him about the Russia Investigation. But he testified that he never received any "improper orders" from Trump and denied that anyone ever asked him to pledge his loyalty, dating back to his time in the Bush administration.
"Nobody has asked me to take a loyalty pledge, other than the oath of office," Rosenstein said.
In the first months of his presidency, Trump asked Comey for loyalty, according to Comey's testimony on Capitol Hill and his account to other FBI officials. Comey did not pledge loyalty, and after a few additional tense interactions with Trump, he was fired in May 2017.
While searching for Comey's replacement, Trump interviewed acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Trump asked McCabe who he voted for during that interview, according to a source familiar with the matter. McCabe did not vote for president in the 2016 general election but did vote in the Republican primary in Virginia, sources told CNN. Trump has publicly denied that he asked McCabe who he voted for.
Seven months later, Rosenstein made his pitch in the December meeting with the President, asking for White House backing as the Justice Department sought to deny access to sensitive documents demanded by Nunes, who has spent months pursuing claims of surveillance abuses by the FBI and the Justice Department against the Trump campaign.
There was no decision by the President at the meeting, the sources told CNN.
White House chief of staff John Kelly later notified the Justice Department that the President would not help block access to the documents.