Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is pushing back against House Intelligence Committee staffers who told Fox News the Justice Department's second-in-command threatened them with a criminal investigation during a meeting earlier this year.
Rosenstein has butted heads with House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes for months over a subpoena for documents related to the Russia investigation, but the battle spilled out into public view Tuesday after Fox News reported staff on the committee felt "personally attacked" at a meeting with Rosenstein in January.
Justice Department officials dispute the recounting of the closed-door meeting detailed in the story, and Rosenstein plans to "request that the House general counsel conduct an internal investigation of these Congressional staffers' conduct" when he returns from a foreign trip this week, DOJ said.
"The Deputy Attorney General never threatened anyone in the room with a criminal investigation," a Justice Department official said. "The FBI Director, the senior career ethics adviser for the Department, and the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs who were all present at this meeting are all quite clear that the characterization of events laid out here is false.
"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."
Kash Patel, the committee's then-senior counsel for counterterrorism, characterized Rosenstein's request to Fox News as a threat to subpoena his records and emails. A second staffer used hyperbolic language – "astonishing," "disheartening," and "downright chilling" – to describe what witnesses say was no more than Rosenstein explaining his rights in protecting himself against charges of contempt.
Another former US official, also present at the meeting, agreed that at no time did Rosenstein threaten any House staff with a criminal investigation.
A spokesperson for Nunes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The DOJ official said that no formal complaint about Rosenstein's conduct has ever been filed with the House general counsel or inspector general to his knowledge.
While Rosenstein and Nunes have been trading barbs for months for the California Republican's document requests, the two nevertheless went to dinner with a mutual friend on the evening of the January meeting.
Nunes never raised Rosenstein's conduct that evening, the official added.