By Joel Schectman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The No. 2 prosecutor appointed to the US Justice Department on Tuesday refused to commit to appointing a special counsel to oversee an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
If confirmed, Rod Rosenstein, nominated by Republican President Donald Trump to be deputy attorney general, would take control of the Russia investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the case.
At their Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Democrats pushed for Rosenstein to commit to assigning a special counsel to investigate, saying only a special counsel free from pressure from the administration could guarantee acceptable results.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Rosenstein: “Do you support an independent outside attorney?”
Rosenstein said that since he was not yet in office, he had not seen the evidence and had no basis to decide whether an independent attorney would be appropriate.
But he was skeptical of the idea. Rosenstein noted that former attorney general Loretta Lynch had not appointed a special counsel when the allegations first came to light, but relied on career prosecutors to handle the case. “She had the information and I didn’t, and she declined the request,” Rosenstein said.
Republicans argued it was too early to know whether a special counsel was appropriate in the Russia case, which involves allegations that members of the Trump campaign had contacts with Russian officials in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Sessions said last week that he will stay out of “any issue having to do with the Trump campaign.” He recused himself after admitting he met Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak twice during the presidential campaign, despite previously testifying before the Senate that he had no contact with Russian officials.
Sessions said the deputy attorney general would be responsible for Russia-related investigations.
US intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the election campaign as part of an effort to tip the vote in favor of Trump. The Kremlin has denied the accusations.
Rosenstein has experience working for a special counsel in investigations involving the presidency. In the mid-1990s, he was part of the independent attorney Kenneth W. Starr’s team of prosecutors investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The 26-year veteran of the Justice Department is viewed by many current and former department officials as a politically neutral choice. “Political affiliations are irrelevant to my work,” Rosenstein said during her testimony Tuesday.
Appointed as Maryland’s chief prosecutor by President George W. Bush, Rosenstein remained in office during the Obama administration.
“Mr. Rosenstein should commit to appointing a special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia,” Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
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