DOJ nominee declines to back special prosecutor on Russia

DOJ nominee declines to back special prosecutor on Russia
© Greg Nash

President Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general declined Tuesday to endorse the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, bucking pressure from Democrats.

Speaking in a calm, firm tone, Rod Rosenstein refused “on principle” to describe how he would handle any individual case.

“I view it as a matter of principle. As a nominee for deputy attorney general, I should not be promising to take action on a particular case,” Rosenstein said. “My view is that I have a responsibility when I take that oath — I cannot take it on condition upon how I will handle a particular case.”

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The hearing for Rosenstein took on added importance last week after Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE recused himself from any investigations related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

As the Justice Department’s second-in-command, Rosenstein would assume control of any investigation that Sessions recused himself from.

Underscoring the unusual interest in Rosenstein’s role, the Dirksen Office Building hearing room was jammed with spectators on Tuesday. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-S.C.) at one point had to squeeze his way between rows of chairs and a packed press table to exit.

Rosenstein, a respected prosecutor who has served five presidents, seemed unfazed by the attention.

In an occasionally tense exchange with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children MORE (D-Calif.), Rosenstein argued that without the underlying facts — which only current officials would know — he could not be asked to make a determination on whether a special prosecutor on Russian interference is needed.

"I'm simply not in a position to answer that," he said.

Rosenstein went only so far as to commit to appoint a special counsel “whenever I determine it’s appropriate based on the policies and procedures of the Department of Justice.”

During the hearing, Rosenstein repeatedly disavowed any knowledge beyond what he has “read in the papers,” and the hearing quickly evolved into a crossfire between Republicans on the defensive and Democrats determined to force the issue.

Democrats can do little to halt Rosenstein’s confirmation, although they can slow-walk the process. Despite praising his experience, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has vowed to use “every possible tool” to block the nomination unless he commits to appointing an independent prosecutor.

Republicans from the start pushed back on calls for a special counsel. 

Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators MORE (R-Iowa) kicked off proceedings with a fierce rebuttal, arguing, "The notion that somehow a special counsel will bring facts to light just isn’t true.

"Any insinuation that Mr. Rosenstein lacks the impartiality and professionalism to handle these kind of matters is out of line. His independence is beyond reproach."

Democrats were careful to separate their calls for an independent prosecutor from their assessment of Rosenstein’s professionalism and experience.

Rosenstein, who has spent nearly 12 years as the United States attorney for Maryland, has more than once been involved in politically charged cases during his career.

He worked on Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into the Whitewater affair during the Clinton administration and oversaw the investigation into retired Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright in a high-profile leak case last year.

Pressed by Grassley, Rosenstein said he was "not aware of any" reason why he would need to recuse himself from any investigations into Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.

"The bottom line is that it’s my job to make sure all investigations are conducted independently,” he said.