Washington(CNN) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's ongoing battle with House Republicans reached new heights Tuesday, as the No. 2 senior leader of the Justice Department plans to call on the House to investigate its own committee staff.
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 now 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, a Justice Department official said.
"The Deputy Attorney General never threatened anyone in the room with a criminal investigation," the 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 added. "That is why he put them on notice to retain relevant emails and text messages, and he hopes they did so."
Another former US official, also present at the meeting, agreed that at no time did Rosenstein threaten any House staff with a criminal investigation.
Later Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Rosenstein's defense during an interview with Fox News, saying he was "confident that Deputy Rosenstein, after 28 years in the Department of Justice, did not improperly threaten anyone on that occasion."
Sessions said he wasn't in the room but that FBI Director Christopher Wray and the Justice Department's senior ethics official were there and didn't see it "in the same fashion," further emphasizing the extent to which the Justice Department has tried "to be cooperative" with Capitol Hill "as the months have gone by."
When asked directly about the meeting, Nunes declined to comment, telling CNN: "Man, you always try, don't you."
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 over 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.