WASHINGTON — Weeks after hailing Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein as an "independent" prosecutor who would "stand up for the law," Senate Democrats said Wednesday they had deep reservations about his impartiality, and no longer trusted him to oversee the FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenstein, who as U.S. attorney for Maryland developed a reputation for avoiding politics, won confirmation to the No. 2 position at the Justice Department last month with broad bipartisan support on April 25. The sudden reversal by Democrats came a day after Rosenstein crafted a memo that laid out the Trump administration's case for firing FBI Director James B. Comey.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who supported Rosenstein's confirmation, described the memo as "political." He said the decision of whether to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Russian interference — and whether the U.S. adversary colluded with the Trump campaign — should now be stripped from Rosenstein and handed over to a civil servant.
Investigations into Russia have fallen to Rosenstein because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the matter. Sessions made that decision after he acknowledged failing to disclose meetings with Russia's ambassador to the United States when he told lawmakers he "did not have communications with the Russians" as a Trump campaign surrogate.
Rosenstein has offered no indication about whether he feels an independent prosecutor is warranted, but members of both parties said ahead of his confirmation that they trusted him to make the right call.
But trust among Democrats, at least, appeared to wear thin hours after Comey's dismissal and two weeks into Rosenstein's tenure. The development had the effect of plunging an official who has tried to steer clear of politics into the center of one of the most politically charged debates that has confronted the nation in years.
"Serious questions have been cast on Mr. Rosenstein's impartiality," Schumer said. "Mr. Rosenstein should not be the one to appoint a special prosecutor."
The New York Democrat also called on Rosenstein and Sessions to come before Congress to explain their roles in Comey's firing.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a similar argument, telling reporters on Capitol Hill that Rosenstein and Sessions should both "recuse themselves from the appointment, selection and reporting of a special counsel."
Those statements came amid media reports, based on interviews with unnamed officials, that Comey had spoken to Rosenstein and requested additional resources for the Russian probe days before he was fired.
Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior flatly denied those reports as "false."
What is clear is that the White House relied on Rosenstein's three-page memo to explain the president's decision to fire Comey.
Rosenstein wrote in that document that he could not defend Comey's handling of the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server to conduct government business while she was secretary of state.
Rosenstein, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Maryland from 2005 until he assumed his new position, wrote that Comey had usurped the Attorney General's authority when he announced at a news conference in July that the Clinton case would be closed without prosecution.
Rosenstein also took issue with Comey's decision to make public "derogatory" information about the subject of a closed investigation, and his letter to Congress less than two weeks before the election announcing the FBI had found more emails and was reopening its inquiry.
Clinton and other Democrats have blamed her election loss in part on the FBI's handling of the case. President Donald Trump has praised Comey's actions when they benefited him, and publicly criticized him when they did not.
On Wednesday, as Democrats were distancing themselves from Rosenstein, many Republicans relied on his memo — and his reputation for being above politics — to justify Comey's abrupt dismissal.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly used words such as "such a respected person" and "incredibly confident in his abilities" to describe Rosenstein.
"I think there's complete confidence in him," Sanders said.
It was, she said, "another reason, frankly, for Director Comey to be out of the way so they can have somebody leading this effort that everybody across the board has respect and confidence in."
Sanders said Sessions and Rosenstein had raised concerns about Comey with the president on Monday, and Trump asked him to put those concerns into writing.
White House officials said Trump was "strongly inclined" to fire Comey after watching his testimony on Capitol Hill last week, but did not make his final decision until after he received Rosenstein's memo on Tuesday.
Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, pointed to Rosenstein's reputation for being above the political fray.
Harris said Rosenstein is "committed to justice and widely respected by his peers," and "I trust the judgment of Mr. Rosenstein."
But Democrats appeared to be torn, putting Maryland's Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen in an awkward position. Both men supported Rosenstein during his confirmation, accompanying him to his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and attesting to his apolitical approach to prosecuting crime in Maryland.
Neither senator directly addressed a question Wednesday about whether they agree with fellow Democrats that the decision to appoint a special prosecutor should be handed off to someone else.
Van Hollen described Rosenstein's memo as "simply not credible," and said the timing of Comey's dismissal so soon after a request for additional resources "reeks to high heaven."
"The only way Mr. Rosenstein can restore the credibility of his office — and the integrity of the Justice Department — is to immediately ensure the appointment of a completely independent special prosecutor who cannot be fired by the president," Van Hollen said in a statement.
Cardin said the decision to fire Comey was made by the president alone, and he believes it was "not based on whatever memo Mr. Rosenstein was asked to write to justify the decision."
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He said Rosenstein could "restore confidence among members of Congress — in himself and the DOJ investigation" by appointing an independent prosecutor.
"It's unclear how much of the memo was his own work and how much pressure was exerted by the White House," Cardin said in a statement. "Let me be clear: The focus here should be on President Trump who fired the person leading the investigation into his associates and his campaign."
Rosenstein won confirmation to the Justice Department job on a 94-6 vote. In a speech before that vote, Schumer said he had met with Rosenstein and "came away with the impression that he is someone who is independent, who would stand up for the law, regardless of which party controlled the White House, and his career backs that up."
But on Wednesday Schumer said it was hard to believe Rosenstein's memo could be written by a "seasoned prosecutor." He said he was disappointed Rosenstein had not spoken up about Sessions' involvement in firing Comey, given Sessions' recusal.
White House officials noted that the director of the FBI has responsibilities beyond the Russian probe, and said it was reasonable for the Attorney General to play a role in firing Comey.