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Fact-checking the Rosenstein hearing about the Russia probe

Washington (CNN)Senators rehashed the Russia investigation Wednesday at a testy hearing with former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who defended special counsel Robert Mueller, but disavowed misconduct related to surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser.

The partisan backdrop was intriguing: Republicans on the panel asked the most aggressive questions of Rosenstein, a Republican who was appointed by President Donald Trump. Democrats were more conciliatory, likely because Rosenstein has refused to endorse Trump's conspiracy theories about the Russia probe or his baseless allegations against Mueller's team.

Here is a breakdown of some of the most dubious and false claims from the hearing.

Papadopoulos' interactions with Trump

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, peppered Rosenstein early on with questions about a memo Rosenstein wrote in August 2017 that authorized Mueller to investigate several Trump campaign advisers, including George Papadopoulos.

"How many times did Papadopoulos meet with Trump?" Graham asked. After Rosenstein said he didn't know the number, Graham continued, "I can tell you, zero, in any meaningful way."

Facts First: Graham is right that Papadopoulos never had an extensive relationship with candidate Trump. But their limited interactions were "meaningful." They were about Russia, they were investigated thoroughly by Mueller, and they came up during Papadopoulos' legal case.

For years, Trump allies minimized Papadopoulos' campaign role as a foreign policy adviser, with one ex-campaign adviser infamously labeling Papadopoulos as a simple "coffee boy."

Trump name-dropped Papadopoulos when announcing his foreign policy team in March 2016. He was an unpaid volunteer with limited exposure to Trump, though he was in regular contact with national campaign co-chair Sam Clovis and other staff, according to the Mueller report.

Graham's insistence that Papadopoulos never had any "meaningful" interactions with Trump is inaccurate, largely because of a March 2016 meeting that Trump and Papadopoulos attended.

It was the first formal gathering of Trump's makeshift team of foreign policy advisers. According to the Mueller report, Papadopoulos told the group that his Russian contacts could broker a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mueller questioned multiple attendees about this interaction, to figure out how Trump and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions responded to Papadopoulos' overtures about Russia.

Papadopoulos even used the meeting to argue for leniency in his criminal case, arguing that he provided key information to investigators about Trump and Sessions. He served two weeks in prison in 2018 for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians, some with government ties.

Opening of the FBI investigation

Republicans on the committee homed in on "the dossier," a set of opposition research memos written in 2016 by Christopher Steele, a retired British spy with extensive experience in Russia. Steele was indirectly funded by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign, and his memos accused Trump's campaign of colluding with the Kremlin, which wasn't one of Mueller's findings.

"The Crossfire Hurricane investigation, based almost entirely on the allegations of Christopher Steele and the sources he provided, which may in fact have been part of a Russian disinformation campaign, has successfully divided the country and create a lot of chaos in the ensuing three and a half years," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a top Senate Republican.

Facts First: The Steele dossier had nothing to do with the FBI's decision in July 2016 to open the Russia probe, codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, according to the Mueller report, an extensive review from the Justice Department inspector general and bipartisan reports from Congress.

CNN has repeatedly debunked this false claim. Nonetheless, Trump, top Republicans, and their allies in conservative media have continued saying that Steele's work led to the investigation.

After the first WikiLeaks email dumps in summer 2016, the FBI received information that Papadopoulos had previously told an Australian diplomat that the Russian government was willing to assist the Trump campaign with anonymous releases of sensitive materials that were damaging to Clinton. This is what led to the Russia probe, according to the Mueller report.

The Justice Department inspector general conducted a lengthy and far-reaching review of the origins of the Russia probe and determined that Steele didn't trigger the FBI investigation. Bipartisan reports from the House Intelligence Committee also reached this same conclusion.

Surveillance of an ex-Trump adviser

Much of the hearing centered on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was used in 2016 and 2017 to wiretap Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

In a report last year, the Justice Department watchdog found systemic problems with the FBI's applications for the surveillance, because exculpatory information was never provided to the secret court that approves the warrants. A criminal investigation of these failures is underway.

"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act... has been abused and manipulated so as to spy on a presidential campaign, a campaign, it turned out to be, for the man who became the 45th President of the United States," Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, said at the hearing.

Facts First: Lee is stretching the truth. There were errors, mistakes and potentially criminal abuses regarding the FISA warrants against Page. But the surveillance wasn't used "to spy on a presidential campaign." Page left the Trump campaign before the surveillance ever began.

Page exited the Trump campaign in September 2016 amid questions about his connections to Russia, including a speech he gave in Moscow months earlier where he criticized US foreign policy and struck a Kremlin-friendly tone. The first FISA warrant was approved in October 2016.

Even Rosenstein pushed back on the notion that the FISA was used to spy on Trump's team.

"I did not view that as targeting any political information," Rosenstein said Wednesday about the requests for FISA surveillance, including one he signed in June 2017. He later said he wouldn't have signed that warrant if he knew about the problems uncovered by the inspector general.

Biden and the 'unmasking' of Flynn

The ongoing legal saga surrounding Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn led to some fireworks at the hearing. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, attacked presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for "unmasking" an intelligence report mentioning Flynn in 2017.

"Joe Biden personally unmasked Michael Flynn's name," Cruz said, adding that he believed Biden and former President Barack Obama had committed Nixon-esque abuses of power.

Facts First: This needs context. Biden or one of his staffers did unmask an intelligence report about Flynn in 2017. But this is a routine and lawful practice among US officials who regularly read intelligence reports, like Biden was at the time. Plus, the National Security Agency only granted this request after Biden's team provided a justification on national security grounds.

The conversation about "unmasking" reached a fever pitch last month, when Trump's acting intelligence chief declassified information about unmasking requests that Obama administration officials made during the Trump transition. Senate Republicans publicly released the list to much fanfare from the White House, though the information proves no wrongdoing on its own.

The list of more than three-dozen Obama-era officials refers only to those who requested to view the identify of unnamed Americans listed in foreign intelligence reports. Therefore, the officials weren't specifically requesting to "unmask Flynn," like Cruz claimed, because they didn't know it was Flynn who was named in the intelligence report before their request was granted.

Biden denies any wrongdoing and says the Trump administration has weaponized sensitive US intelligence for political gain. The NSA hasn't released the explanations given for why Obama officials asked to unmask the reports about Flynn. But around that time, Flynn was engaged in controversial discussions and meetings with officials from Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts during the presidential transition with a Russian diplomat, though his criminal case is currently in limbo

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