Rosenstein declines questions about Sessions recusal

Rosenstein declines questions about Sessions recusal
© Greg Nash

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Tuesday declined to answer repeated questions from lawmakers about the scope of the attorney general's recusal from the federal investigation into Russian interference in the election.

“What I’m trying to explain is it would be inappropriate for me to do that because [Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants DOJ wades into archdiocese fight for ads on DC buses Overnight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector MORE is] recused from Department of Justice investigations and we don’t talk about investigations while they’re ongoing,” Rosenstein said at a Senate hearing.

Democrats have suggested that Sessions’s involvement in the dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey, which President Trump linked to the FBI’s investigation of Russia, fell outside of the scope of his recusal.

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In its initial explanation of Comey’s May firing, the White House said that Trump accepted a recommendation from Sessions and Rosenstein.

“Recommending Director Comey’s firing would seem to be a violation of his recusal, and Attorney General Sessions needs to answer for that,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Monday.

The attorney general stepped back from the federal probe in March after reports emerged that he had failed to inform Congress of meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, which the Justice Department has said were in his capacity as a senator.  

Sessions himself was originally slated to appear before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday morning — a meeting ostensibly on the Justice Department budget — but at the last minute sent Rosenstein in his stead so the attorney general could testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee later in the day.

Democrats criticized Sessions for ducking the appearance and used the opportunity to press Rosenstein on the scope of Sessions’s recusal, which Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsA Department of Energy foundation: An idea whose time has come We must reconcile privacy and safety in the digital era Protecting intellectual property in America is harder than ever MORE (D-Del.) called “utterly unclear.” 

“The AG had a press conference and announced his recusal from these matters. But which matters?” asked Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Tuesday. “I will ask one more time, for the lay public: What is Sessions allowed to be involved in, and who makes that determination, and how do we know he's complying?"

Asked by Schatz whether there was a document detailing the parameters of Sessions’s recusal, Rosenstein said that such a document was not necessary due to the hierarchical nature of the Justice Department — meaning that any information related to the Russia investigation would be filtered out through his office before it went to Sessions.

“What if they come through the Oval Office?” Schatz asked. 

“We’re not briefing the Oval Office about our investigations so I don’t know how [information related to the Russia probe] would get there,” Rosenstein said. 

Comey himself, pressed by Senate Intelligence Committee members last week, left his old boss out to dry on the topic.

“I think it’s a reasonable question. If, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain?” Comey said last week. “I don’t know, and so I don’t have an answer for the question.”