WASHINGTON — The Justice Department official who would oversee the federal investigation into Russia's meddling in the U.S. election sidestepped calls to appoint a special prosecutor, testifying Tuesday that he didn't know enough about the probe to make such a pledge.
Rod Rosenstein, a top federal prosecutor nominated by President Donald Trump to be deputy attorney general, testified that if confirmed he would ensure that politics would not derail any investigation involving Russia. He said he was "not aware" of any reason he couldn't oversee such a probe of Kremlin-led election interference, adding that his "job would be to make sure all investigations are conducted independently."
What normally would have be a relatively sleepy hearing drew intense interest and sharp questions from some lawmakers in light of Attorney General 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.
Democrats have pressed for the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's meddling and any potential ties Moscow may have had to the Trump campaign. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pledged on Twitter on Sunday to use "every possible tool" to block Rosenstein's appointment if he didn't commit to appointing such a prosecutor.
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 Attorney General Loretta Lynch and acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente had declined to name a special prosecutor. The FBI is investigating Russia's interference in the election, as well as any potential ties between the Trump campaign or his associates and the Kremlin, U.S. officials have said.
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 Hillary Clinton and help Trump. Those efforts included the hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee and a top Clinton campaign official, and then leaking them.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the committee, and other Republicans pushed back on Democrats' calls for an independent prosecutor. They said Rosenstein had the experience and background to ensure that any investigations would remain independent.
"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."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Rosenstein if he had read Trump's tweets over the weekend alleging, without providing evidence, that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones at Trump Tower. The tweets caused a storm of controversy. A spokesman for Obama denied the allegation, saying that "a cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice."
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 First 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 adviser, Michael Flynn, was picked up on such a wiretap of the Russian ambassador, officials have said. That wiretap eventually led to Flynn's resignation when it emerged that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of the conversation.
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.