WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats pressed a top Justice Department nominee Tuesday to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the ongoing federal inquiry into Russia's intervention in the U.S. election.
If confirmed as deputy attorney general, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein would assume management of the investigation following last week's decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself. Sessions' abrupt disqualification came after reports of meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States that he twice failed to disclose to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his January confirmation hearing.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said recent disclosures about communications between Russian authorities and Trump associates require the appointment of a "respected prosecutor'' because the contacts demonstrate the "perception'' of a conflict of interest.
"I do not say this because I question the integrity of Mr. Rosenstein, I do not,'' Feinstein said. "This is about something bigger than one person.''
Asked directly by Feinstein whether he would appoint an outside prosecutor, Rosenstein said he had not yet been briefed on the facts of the case.
"I'm not in a position to answer the question,'' Rosenstein said, adding later that he was "willing to appoint a special counsel whenever I feel it is appropriate.''
Maryland Democrats back Rosenstein
Maryland Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, who expressed strong support for Rosenstein's nomination, said they also would urge an outside investigation of Russian intervention. Van Hollen went further, saying that he would encourage the Justice Department to reject Trump's recent assertions that the President Barack Obama had ordered wiretaps of Trump's New York offices in the months before the November election.
FBI Director James Comey last weekend called on Justice officials to issue such a rebuke, but Justice has not acted on that request.
Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, meanwhile , said requests for a special counsel or special commission were "premature at best.''
"Special counsel inquiries under the current department regulations are not the best way to ensure transparency and accountability,'' Grassley said. "There is no mandatory public report or other finding at the end of the investigation if no charges are filed. The investigations can just disappear without the public ever understanding what the facts were. So, the notion that somehow a special counsel will bring facts to light just isn’t true.”
Rosenstein nomination to the second-highest ranking post at the Justice Department has drawn intense scrutiny as an increasing number of top aides to President Trump have acknowledged meeting with Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak in the months prior to Trump's election and inauguration, including Sessions. The ongoing FBI investigation is reviewing communications between Trump associates and Russian government officials.