WASHINGTON – Maryland federal prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general, would not commit on Tuesday to appointing a special prosecutor to probe possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Despite pressure from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rosenstein stressed that he was not in the Justice Department yet, nor did he have the facts to address such a matter.
Responding to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about designating an outside prosecutor, Rosenstein replied:
“The answer is I’m not simply not in position to answer the question because I’m not in the position to make it.”
Feinstein, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urged Rosenstein to read the declassified documents regarding Russia’s interference in the election after Rosenstein said he has only read media report summaries.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he was going to try to block his confirmation if Rosenstein does not commit to appointing a counsel.
“As I told you, I will oppose your nomination if you are unwilling to commit to appoint a special prosecutor,” Blumenthal said. “Only you…only you have the power to appoint a special prosecutor.”
The committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, opposes appointment of a special prosecutor.
“Any talk of a special counsel is premature, at best,” Grassley said.
The panel also questioned Rachel Brand, a United States Chamber of Commerce attorney, who was nominated for associate attorney general.
Rosenstein’s nomination has come under sharper scrutiny since Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a self-described Trump campaign surrogate, recused himself from any probes into ties between that campaign and Russia.
With the intelligence agencies in full agreement that the Russians launched a massive hacking attack in the most recent presidential election, Blumenthal said that the situation is “careening toward a constitutional crisis.”
“I believe that a special prosecutor is absolutely necessary to ensure absolute independence as well as the integrity of this investigation and that’s why I have pressed you privately,” Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal asked Rosenstein that if he declined to name a special prosecutor if he would come before to the Judiciary Committee again to explain why.
Rosenstein did not answer the question directly but instead called attention to the disagreement that he and Blumenthal have “on this narrow issue.”
“I thought a lot about this issue, senator,” Rosenstein said. “You view it as an issue of principle that I need to commit to appoint a special counsel in a matter that I don’t even know is being investigated and I view it as an issue of principle that as a nominee for deputy attorney general, I should not be promising to take action on a particular case.”
However, Rosenstein said he would handle the investigation into Russian meddling, “the way I handle any investigation.”
“I don’t know the details of what, if any, investigation is ongoing, but I can certainly assure you if it’s America against Russia, or America against any other country, I think everyone in this room knows which side I’m on,” Rosenstein said.
Rosenstein is currently the Maryland U.S. attorney, appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush.
“I am very impressed by his responsibilities as the U.S. attorney for the state of Maryland,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. a witness for Rosenstein. “He has led major criminal investigations and prosecutions in regards to contraband smuggling, with gang members and inmates and correctional officers.”
Rosenstein has handled sensitive corruption cases, from dealing with police officers to elected officials, as well as protecting Maryland citizens through his commitment on environmental and consumer issues, Cardin said.
“What impresses me the most is that he’s done this in a total non-partisan, professional manner,” Cardin said.
Sen. Van Hollen, D-Md., also gave his full support.
“Rod has not only aggressively prosecuted dangerous gangs and criminals in Maryland, but also elected officials who violated the public’s trust,” Van Hollen said. “He has shown impartiality in these investigations, and his successful prosecutions have led to ethics reforms that increased transparency and public confidence in Maryland.”
Rosenstein has earned the distinction of being the longest-serving United States attorney, serving under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Van Hollen said.
“The United States Department of Justice has been my professional home for almost three decades,” Rosenstein said. “I have served under five presidents and under nine attorneys general.”
If confirmed, Rosenstein said, he would work to defend the independence and integrity of the Justice Department.