Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's Confirmation Hearing Focuses On Russia Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any possible investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia, Rod Rosenstein would have to pick up the task if confirmed.


Hearing For Deputy Attorney General Nominee Focuses On Sessions, Russia

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A congressional hearing to fill top posts at the Justice Department today turned into a proxy war over the Trump administration's ties to Russia. Democrats pressed the nominee for deputy attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor. They got no such commitment, as NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Twenty-seven-year Justice Department veteran Rod Rosenstein could soon become the ultimate decider on the most politically sensitive subject in Washington. That's because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian officials, leaving the tough questions for his deputy, Rosenstein, if the Senate confirms him.

Rosenstein's three-hour hearing focused less on the record of the career prosecutor and more on his superiors. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut pointed out the attorney general could end up a witness in any investigation involving Russia.


RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: How can you investigate your boss?

JOHNSON: Blumenthal and other Democrats say there's only one way to guarantee public confidence in the Russia investigation - by naming an independent prosecutor to lead it. But Rosenstein refused to make that commitment. Instead, he said he doesn't have all the facts, but he does have a long history in cases involving public corruption and national security.


ROD ROSENSTEIN: Senator, I don't know the details of what, if any, investigation is ongoing. But I can certainly assure you; if it's America against Russia or America against any other country, I think everyone in this room knows which side I'm on.

JOHNSON: In a surprising turn, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spent a while clashing with each other over the questioning of Attorney General Sessions in January. On Monday, Sessions clarified his testimony in writing after The Washington Post reported he gave a misleading answer to Minnesota Senator Al Franken. The three-page letter was not enough for Franken.


ALAN FRANKEN: I think Senator Sessions should come back. I think he owes it to this committee to come back and to explain himself.

JOHNSON: That prompted the top Republican on the committee, Chairman Charles Grassley, to jump in and defend Sessions.


CHARLES GRASSLEY: And I consider what Senator Franken asked Sessions at that late moment that the story just come out as a gotcha question. And...

FRANKEN: It was not a gotcha question, sir.

GRASSLEY: It was. From the standpoint...


GRASSLEY: ...That he didn't know what you were asking about.

JOHNSON: Later in the hearing, Franken said he couldn't have been nicer to the attorney general. Franken said Sessions had gotten himself into trouble by not mentioning he had two contacts with the Russian ambassador last year.


FRANKEN: It can't be a gotcha question if he didn't answer the question. So the thing that got him was him saying that he had not met with Russians. But that wasn't even my question.

JOHNSON: Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, says she's worried about press reports suggesting the White House has been trying to interfere in ongoing investigations and court cases.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: We need steel spines, not weak knees when it comes to political independence in the Department of Justice.

JOHNSON: Rosenstein attested to his independence but declined invitations from Democrats to criticize the president's tweets. Last weekend, Trump claimed without evidence that President Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower. Rosenstein said he didn't know anything about the matter but said the president has First Amendment rights just like anyone else. Rosenstein also pledged to enforce rules that limit contacts between the White House and people inside the department on law enforcement cases. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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