Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, nominated to be the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, declined Tuesday to commit to a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the election — frustrating Democrats who say an outside counsel is needed to depoliticize the issue.
Facing a barrage of questions during his confirmation hearing, Rosenstein also said he saw no need to recuse himself from any pending investigations into Russia and said he would follow such a probe wherever it leads, including to the White House.
Rosenstein, Maryland's top federal prosecutor since 2005, was nominated by President Donald Trump in January to serve as deputy attorney general. His otherwise noncontroversial nomination was thrust into the debate over Russia after Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week that he would recuse himself from investigations into that matter. Sessions' recusal leaves the decision making over an investigation to Rosenstein.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee had hoped to use Rosenstein's confirmation hearing Tuesday to extract some commitment from him on a special prosecutor. But in exchange after exchange, Rosenstein said he did not yet know the facts of the case, and so could not say how he would approach the question of Russia.
"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 if it's being investigated," Rosenstein said at one point. "I view it as an issue of principle that ... I should not be promising to take action on a particular case."
Democrats were keen to frame the issue as a matter of independence.
"We need steel spines, not weak knees, when it comes to political independence in the Department of Justice," said the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. "There is a real danger that the Department of Justice could become politicized."
Republicans said they saw the requests as unrelated to Rosenstein's qualifications for the job.
"Any talk of a special counsel is premature, at best," said the committee's Republican chairman, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. "The notion that somehow a special counsel will bring facts to light just isn't true."
Rosenstein, a 52-year-old Bethesda resident, is the nation's longest-serving U.S. attorney. He has won high marks in Maryland from both sides of the aisle, a fact that is likely to help him weather the political machinations around his nomination. If Republicans hold together, as expected, Democrats will have little power to stop his confirmation.
Rosenstein was introduced Tuesday by Maryland's two Democratic senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both of whom offered glowing recommendations.
"Mr. Rosenstein is the right person at the right time," Cardin said. "I am confident of his judgment on these issues."
Both senators opposed another Trump nominee with Maryland ties, retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Despite Democratic objections, Carson was sworn in as the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development last week.
Debate over Russia got underway immediately at Rosenstein's hearing, with Grassley using his opening statement to question the need for a special prosecutor and suggesting that Democrats were grandstanding because they had not made similar requests during President Barack Obama's administration.
Under questioning from Grassley, Rosenstein said he did not recall ever meeting with representatives of the Russian government. He said he first spoke with Sessions on Nov. 28, 10 days after Trump announced he would nominate the former Alabama senator to serve as his attorney general.
Rosenstein said he had not spoken with Sessions about Russian contacts with presidential campaigns.
Democrat after Democrat then tried to pin Rosenstein down, questioning whether he had read an unclassified report from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian hacking (he had not) or whether he had studied Sessions' letter outlining his recusal (Rosenstein said he was familiar with its broad outlines).
And they repeatedly questioned Rosenstein on the circumstances under which he might appoint a special prosecutor.
"The answer is, I'm simply not in a position to answer the question because I don't know the information they know — the folks who are in the position to make that decision," Rosenstein said.
"As far as I'm concerned, every investigation conducted by the Department of Justice is an independent investigation," he said.
One issue that received little attention was Rosenstein's record in Maryland, or crime fighting generally.
Rosenstein has initiated several high-profile cases in the state, including the prosecution of Black Guerrilla Family gang members, inmates and corrections officers who devised a massive contraband smuggling scheme at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Last week, he announced federal racketeering charges against seven Baltimore police officers who prosecutors said were shaking down citizens, filing false court paperwork and making fraudulent overtime claims.
Asked about consent decrees negotiated between the Justice Department and local police to address civil rights violations, Rosenstein said Tuesday his familiarity with the issue was "limited."
"Like all tools that we have available to us," he said, "it's appropriate to use this one in a particular case."
The Justice Department under Obama negotiated such an agreement with Baltimore City following a report last summer that alleged a pattern of civil rights abuses by police. The agreement is now pending in U.S. District Court.
Sessions said during an address last week that his department would "pull back" on pursuing such agreements. He has been less clear on his approach to dealing with agreements already in place.
"So we're going to try to pull back on this, and I don't think it's wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights," Sessions said. "I think it's out of a concern to make the lives of people in particularly the poor communities, minority communities, live a safer, happier life."
By far the bulk of Rosenstein's confirmation hearing was focused on Russia.
At least one Senate Democrat, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said before the meeting that he would "use every possible tool" to block Rosenstein's confirmation unless he agreed to name an independent prosecutor to investigate the allegations of election tampering.
"Only you have the power to appoint a special prosecutor," Blumenthal said. "We are in an extraordinary time, careening toward a constitutional crisis with the intelligence agencies in complete agreement that the Russians launched a massive attack on our democracy."
Blumenthal said he took the position with a measure of "sadness and regret" because of his respect for Rosenstein.
"If you feel you need to oppose my nomination on that basis, I respect your right to do it," Rosenstein told Blumenthal, himself a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general in Connecticut. "I do not take it personally."
The committee also heard from Rachel Brand, a former assistant attorney general who has been nominated for the No. 3 position at the department.