Senate Democrats could not plausibly challenge the qualifications or integrity of President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general — Rod Rosenstein has served presidents of both parties as a U.S. attorney.
So Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday tried in vain to get him to promise to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Russian interference is one of the worst things I’ve seen in my years in the Senate.”
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“Russian interference is one of the worst things I’ve seen in my years in the Senate … I cannot remember anything in my years here that has troubled me more,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said.
The decision about how to handle any investigation involving the Trump campaign would fall to Rosenstein, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed last week to recuse himself in light of his role in that campaign. Rosenstein said several times Tuesday that he knows of no reason a special counsel would be needed. He said he would step aside if there were any reason to do so.
“I’m not aware of any requirement for me to recuse at this time, but as a lawyer, senator, I would need to know what it is I’m recusing from, and as a Department of Justice official, I would have to rely on the advice of the career staff,” he told Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). “We have folks who are trained to do just that.”
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In response to questions from the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Rosenstein noted that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch dismissed calls for a special prosecutor on the Russia issue. The acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, also could take that step.
“If there were a need for a special counsel, he currently has full authority to appoint one,” Rosenstein said. “So I don’t know at this point if Attorney General Lynch or Acting [Deputy] Attorney General Boente are right or wrong, but I certainly wouldn’t be in a position to overrule them without having access to the facts that are the basis for their decisions.”
Leahy and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) took the opportunity at Tuesday’s hearing to call for Sessions to return to the committee for further testimony in light of his acknowledgement that he had failed to disclose a number of occasions in 2016 in which he had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Leahy said supplemental testimony that Sessions submitted this week “did not even attempt to answer his misleading response” to questions about contact with Russian officials.
Some Democratic senators have vowed to hold up Rosenstein’s nomination over their calls for a special prosecutor. It will be hard for them to argue Rosenstein cannot be trusted to independently investigate issues involving the Trump campaign, however.
He is the nation’s longest-serving U.S. attorney. Originally appointed by President George W. Bush, he won re-appointment by Obama with the strong support of local law enforcement authorities and Maryland’s Democratic elected officials.
Rosenstein and another Justice Department lawyer handled a criminal probe into illegal leaking that resulted in the conviction of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright last year on a charge of making false statements during the investigation. Former President Obama pardoned him just before leaving office.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) called Rosenstein the “right person at the right time.”
Grassley recited past quotes from Democrats praising Rosenstein and their prior statements opposing a special counsel to oversee the investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information. Some Republicans called for such a special prosecutor after revelations that Lynch had met with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac.
“Presumably my Democratic colleagues haven’t changed their minds about Mr. Rosenstein because the president is now a Republican instead of a Democrat,” Grassley said, later adding, “It would be easier to credit calls for special counsels if they were made with some consistency and intellectual honesty.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) made the same point regarding Lynch.
“My Democratic friends had nothing to say about that,” he said. “This kind of double standard makes it at least look like partisan politics. I’d hoped we could start to depoliticize the Department of Justice.”