Rod Rosenstein, a top federal prosecutor nominated by
What normally would have be a relatively sleepy hearing drew intense interest and sharp questions from some lawmakers in light of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions' announcement last week that he would recuse himself from any investigations involving the fall campaign. With that action, oversight of any such probe would fall to the department's No. 2.
The attorney general, a top Trump campaign surrogate last year, said he would distance himself from the investigation after Justice Department officials disclosed he had met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. despite having told Congress in January that he had engaged in no such contacts.
Though Rosenstein testified he would be "willing to appoint a special prosecutor whenever I feel it's appropriate," he spent most of the hearing dodging questions about the Russia investigation, saying he had not been briefed about it.
Under questioning from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rosenstein noted that former Atty. Gen.
FBI officials have not publicly discussed their investigation, and there are no indications that they have discovered wrongdoing by any Trump associate.
"I am not in a position to answer the question because I don't know the information they know," Rosenstein said, referring to Lynch and Boente. He added that he would consult with career lawyers and review the rules and regulations governing such appointments to determine if one is necessary.
Rosenstein said he had no reason to doubt conclusions by the intelligence community that Russia sought to undermine the elections, though he testified he had not read the declassified version of an intelligence community report published Jan. 6 that reached that conclusion. The report asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the election-related meddling in an effort to hurt Democratic presidential nominee
"There are times when special counsels are appropriate," Grassley said. "But it's far too soon to tell here. And even if there were evidence of a crime related to any of these matters, once confirmed Mr. Rosenstein can decide how to handle it. I know of no reason to question his judgment, integrity, or impartiality."
Rosenstein said he had indeed read about the tweets.
"What was your reaction?" Graham asked.
"I don't think it's appropriate for me to share my reaction, senator," Rosenstein said. "If the president is exercising his 1st Amendment rights, that's not my issue."
If federal authorities had wiretapped Trump or his associates, such actions would have required approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or a federal judge and then only after a finding that there was probable cause that a crime had been committed or that someone in Trump Tower was an agent of a foreign power. The FBI routinely receives such approval to tap the phones of foreign operatives.
Trump’s first national security advisor,
Rosenstein, a 52-year-old Harvard Law School graduate and longtime federal prosecutor, is the U.S. attorney in Maryland and has served in that position under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. He is the lone political appointee remaining from the Bush years, and is well regarded by members of both parties.
He was joined at the hearing by Rachel Brand, 43, who has been nominated to be associate attorney general, the agency's No. 3 position. Also a Harvard Law graduate, Brand is the former chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and served until last month as a member of the federal Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
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