March 08, 2017
The federal prosecutor nominated for the Justice Department’s No. 2 job said Tuesday he was not aware of any reason why he should recuse himself from an investigation of Russian involvement in the presidential election, as he resisted demands from Democrats to appoint a special counsel to handle any such probe.
Rod Rosenstein, the nominee for deputy attorney general, pushed back against Senate Democrats’ assertions that he should appoint a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation, noting that while he has no knowledge of the facts of any potential probe, he was “not aware” of any basis that would disqualify him from overseeing such an investigation.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Rosenstein also said he had not knowingly met with any Russian officials in the time since he was first contacted about the deputy position in November, though he acknowledged that he has met with visiting foreign lawyers and judges during his tenure as a U.S. attorney for Maryland.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee made a point to pin down his responses on meetings with Russian officials after Attorney General Jeff Sessions disclosed last week that he had met twice last year with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. — contrary to Sessions’ confirmation hearing testimony that he had no contact with Russian officials.
The attorney general’s announcement last week that he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigation involving the presidential campaign leaves the responsibility for any probe of the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the election with Rosenstein, the longest-serving U.S. attorney in the country, if he’s confirmed.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein if he would commit to appointing a special prosecutor, Rosenstein said that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch rejected calls that she appoint a special prosecutor, and noted that Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente also has declined to take any such action.
“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,” Rosenstein said. “I am simply not in a position to answer that question because I don’t know the information they knew. When I am in that position — I don’t presume Attorney General Lynch and Acting Deputy Attorney General Boente are correct. I have a lot of respect for them. But if I determine they are mistaken, then I would overrule them.”
Feinstein said the appointment of a special prosecutor would ensure “the American people have trust in this investigation.”
“I do not say this because I question the integrity or the ability of Rosenstein. I do not,” the California Democrat said. “But this is about more than just one individual. This is about the integrity of the process and the public’s faith in our institutions of justice.”
Other lawmakers went a step further, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal saying he would not support Rosenstein’s nomination unless he commits to appointing a special counsel to handle an investigation.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded this year that Russia sought to undermine the U.S. democratic process via cyber-attacks during the presidential campaign and aspired to help Trump win the White House in part by discrediting Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton and the Democrat Party.
Rosenstein was pressed at multiple points during the hearing on whether he would be able to fairly investigate his boss or the president, but he reiterated that he did “not know if there is an investigation.”
The push from Democrats for a special prosecutor was met with stiff resistance from Republicans, who said they had every faith in Rosenstein’s ability to independently oversee an investigation.
“Any insinuation that Rosenstein lacks the impartiality or professionalism necessary to handle these matters is out of line,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman. “He’s a career civil servant who has served with distinction during both the Bush and Obama administrations. His independence is beyond reproach.”
Rosenstein has served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland since 2005, holding the position under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Recent high-profile prosecutions undertaken by his office include the Black Guerrilla Family gang members who were running a large-scale contraband smuggling ring inside the Baltimore City Detention Center with the help of inmates and guards. Among his 10 most important cases, Rosenstein listed the conviction and life sentence handed down to a Maryland serial killer for a crime spree that entailed more than 50 crimes.
In 2012 Rosenstein was tapped by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate a series of leaks of classified information.
“It is my job to make sure all investigations are conducted independently,” Rosenstein said at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing. “Political affiliation is irrelevant to my work.”