The man expected to oversee any possible Department of Justice case involving Russian interference in the American election got his first public grilling Tuesday and admitted not knowing more about events “than I’ve read in the newspapers.”
Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, gave that answer in response to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering his nomination to be deputy attorney general, a post from which he would supervise the Russia investigation in place of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the probe last week.
Rosenstein said his lack of detailed knowledge of the Russia case prevented him from being able to answer questions about whether he would appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation, a step Democratic senators favor.
“I do not know the details, and I would not reach any conclusions based on what I read in the newspapers,” he said. He pointed out, under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that he did not have access to the full classified intelligence community report on Russian interference and said he had not read the unclassified version.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota expressed frustration that Rosenstein had not at least read the unclassified version. “I find that very, very disturbing,” Franken said.
It was Franken’s questioning during Sessions’ confirmation hearing in January that led to the attorney general’s recusal last week after it was revealed that, contrary to his testimony, he had met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during last year’s presidential campaign, when Sessions was an adviser to Donald Trump.
Franken repeated to Rosenstein the question he had asked Sessions: “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had contact with the Russian government, what would you do?”
Rosenstein responded that if there were an indication that the communications had “violated federal law, I would ensure an appropriate investigation.”
Rosenstein noted that neither former Attorney General Loretta Lynch nor current acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, both of whom have had oversight of the Russia probe previously, had appointed a special prosecutor, despite having the authority to do so.
“They made their decisions not to appoint a special counsel and they have access to information that I do not have,” he said.
The nomination of a deputy attorney general is usually a routine, low-key affair. But Rosenstein’s confirmation hearing was packed, evidence of the hold that the prospect of Russian meddling in November’s election has on Washington, where two congressional investigations and one by the FBI are underway. In addition to Sessions’ recusal last week, Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was fired last month for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Kislyak.
The sensitivity was on display when the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, clashed with Franken over his call for Sessions to return to the committee to answer questions about his contacts with Kislyak. Grassley accused Franken of having asked Sessions a “gotcha” question.
“It was not a ‘gotcha’ question, sir,” Franken objected. The two talked over each other until Grassley pounded his gavel, signaling an end to the exchange.
I do not know the details, and I would not reach any conclusions based on what I read in the newspapers.
Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general nominee
Despite the Democrat’s concerns, Rosenstein appeared to be on track for confirmation. He was introduced to the committee by Maryland’s senators, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Democrats, who praised his record and character.
If their praise translates to support in a Senate vote, that would mean the remaining 46 Democrats in the Senate would need to be united in opposition and convince five Republicans to join them, to defeat his nomination.
Rosenstein is a career prosecutor who has been U.S. attorney in Maryland since 2006. He was an associate independent counsel in the early years of the Whitewater investigation led by Ken Starr but had left that office before the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and acquittal, on perjury charges.
On Tuesday, Rosenstein told senators that “political affiliation is irrelevant to my work.” He said he often reminded himself of his responsibility to answer three questions with every case: “What can we do? What should we do? And how will we explain it?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect reference to Vice President Mike Pence.