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The Senate just grilled Jeff Sessions' deputy nominee about Russia

The Senate just grilled Jeff Sessions’ deputy nominee about Russia

It was all about Russia at the confirmation hearing Tuesday for Rod Rosenstein, President Trump’s pick for deputy attorney general.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s questions unsurprisingly focused on Russia, since the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged contacts with the Kremlin could fall to Rosenstein now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. Sessions stepped back from it last week after a Washington Post article revealed he’d failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador during his own confirmation hearing in February. Democratic senators seized on the opportunity to take swipes at Sessions, sometimes verbally sparring with their Republican counterparts. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken even said repeatedly and heatedly that Sessions needs to return to the committee to “explain himself.”

For some Democrats, Sessions’ recusal isn’t enough: They’ll only confirm Rosenstein, Maryland’s attorney general since 2005, if he vows to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the Russia investigation. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday doubled down on his pledge to delay Rosenstein’s confirmation using “every tool, every power available,” until he agreed to appoint a special prosecutor.

Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Rosenstein if he believed investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election was a “matter of importance.” “I don’t know the details, but everyone in this room knows I’m on the side of the USA,” Rosenstein replied. Rosenstein said he had had no communication with Sessions or the White House about the question of appointing a special prosecutor to the investigation.”

“When I determine it’s appropriate, I will [appoint a special prosecutor],” said Rosenstein.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explained prior to the hearing that there’s a “strong legal rationale” for appointing a special prosecutor to handle the probe into the Russia-Trump ties, found for several of Trump’s closest advisers. Schumer explained that a special prosecutor could operate independently from Justice Department supervision. “They will be free to follow the investigation where it leads and will be subject to an increased level of congressional oversight,” Schumer said. “Moreover, it’s the right thing to do to ensure that this investigation remains impartial, nonpartisan, and truly gets to the bottom of the matter.”

Schumer added that a political appointment such as Rosenstein could be fired by Trump if he was unhappy with where the investigation was going, recalling how the president fired former Deputy AG Sally Yates when she directed the DOJ not to defend his travel ban on foreigners from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Rosenstein is no stranger to presidential scandals; he served as an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, probing Bill and Hillary Clinton’s real estate dealings. He’s been Maryland’s attorney general since he was appointed by President Bush in 2005, and then retained by President Obama. His tenure in both a Republican and Democratic administration has won him bipartisan support in D.C.

“Mr. Rosenstein is a very fine man,” Schumer said. “Our call for a special prosecutor is not an aspersion to him in any way.” He added that Senate Democrats were “worried” that the White House would stymie an investigation “without the insulation of a special prosecutor.”

Republicans pushed back on the Democrats’ demands. “Special counsels are appropriate sometimes, but it’s too soon to tell now,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley. “Once confirmed, Rosenstein can decide how to handle that matter.” Grassley also accused Democrats of being hypocrisy. “I can’t help but notice the selective nature of the demands for a special counsel,” Grassley said. “Where were those calls when [former Attorney General Loretta] Lynch was overseeing the Clinton investigations?”

Of the Republicans, Sen. Lindsey Graham went hardest on Rosenstein, challenging him on whether he could conduct an investigation into Russia without partiality. “Do you believe that you could do that job without political learning even though you’ve been appointed by the president,” Graham asked.

A recent CNN/ORC poll indicates that there is widespread public support for a special prosecutor to take the reins on the Russian investigation. Forty-three percent of Republicans surveyed support the call for a special prosecutor (as do 82 percent of Democrats).

The committee is expected to make a decision on Rosenstein later Tuesday.

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