WASHINGTON – The stakes are suddenly much higher for the veteran prosecutor nominated to be top deputy to Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Rod Rosenstein would shoulder all the pressure of the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign.
Sessions' recusal last week from any investigations into last year's campaigns makes the deputy attorney general responsible for the inquiry of Russian hacking and contacts with President Donald Trump's associates. Rosenstein can expect tough questions at his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his willingness to follow the facts wherever they lead — potentially even to his own boss and the White House.
Even Democrats who have demanded that Sessions resign acknowledge that Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, is well-qualified after more than 25 years' experience working in the Justice Department through Republican and Democratic administrations. So the focus will turn on how he intends to handle the explosive Russia investigation.
"Dems should seek to have Rosenstein commit to a special counsel, which he would be empowered to appoint if confirmed," said Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, the Justice Department and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. They should "hinge it on the fact that it is an untenable situation for anyone in the deputy slot to be investigating their own boss, whom they meet with every day."
Schumer, Senate minority leader, said Sunday on "Meet the Press" on NBC, "I am urging him at that hearing to say that he will appoint a special prosecutor to look into this."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is on the Judiciary panel, said on Twitter Sunday that he'll "use every possible tool" to block Rosenstein's confirmation unless he promises to appoint a special counsel.
Rosenstein's associates say he should have little problem assuring senators of his independence, given his reputation and experience in prosecuting crimes.
"He is a prosecutor's prosecutor," said Jason Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "Given the incredibly politically charged environment in which he will be coming into this job, I can't imagine someone who I would have more confidence in than him."
Still, senators are likely to press Rosenstein to pledge that his commitment to the Constitution and the law will override his loyalty to the attorney general or the president. That could create a moment like the one when then-Sen. Sessions questioned Sally Yates at her confirmation hearing for the job of deputy attorney general on whether she'd be willing to say "no" to the president.
Her affirmative answer went viral after Trump fired Yates, who as attorney general, refused in January to defend Trump's travel ban in court.
Sessions recused himself from investigations of last year's campaigns after it was disclosed that he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice last year despite testifying at his confirmation hearing that "I did not have communications with the Russians." Sessions said that "in retrospect" he should have said he met with the ambassador in his capacity as a senator, not as a Trump campaign adviser.
The Justice Department said Sessions won't go to meetings, review evidence or weigh in on the final decisions to pursue or end multiple FBI investigations underway into attempts by the Russian government to sway last year's U.S. presidential election, including the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails.
While Dana Boente, a U.S. prosecutor in Virginia who's currently acting deputy attorney general, took immediate charge of any campaign investigations, the task will shift to Rosenstein if he wins Senate confirmation.
Republicans say Rosenstein's solid record should help fend off Democratic pressure to commit before his confirmation to a special counsel or an independent commission on Russian influence. "Nobody should be prejudging as to if there should or shouldn't be a special prosecutor. Mr. Rosenstein is clearly independent, having been a U.S. attorney under both President Bush and President Obama," Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, said.
Rosenstein, 52, is the only U.S. attorney appointed by former President George W. Bush who remains in place, serving in Baltimore since 2005. Among his past challenges was as a prosecutor in the Whitewater investigation into former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.