Hearing For Deputy Attorney General Nominee Focuses On Sessions, Russia | KNKX

Hearing For Deputy Attorney General Nominee Focuses On Sessions, Russia

Mar 7, 2017
Originally published on March 7, 2017 4:35 pm

Rod Rosenstein, if appointed as deputy attorney general, could soon become the ultimate decider on the most politically sensitive subject in Washington.

His confirmation hearing on Tuesday turned into a proxy war over the Trump administration's ties to Russia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any investigation into the election and Russian officials, leaving the tough questions for his deputy.

Rosenstein's three-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee focused less on his record as a 27-year Justice Department veteran and more on his superiors.

"How can you investigate your boss?" asked Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, pointing out that the attorney general could end up a witness in any investigation involving Russia.

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.

Rosenstein, who has a long history in cases involving public corruption and national security, refused to make that commitment. He said he doesn't have all the facts.

"Senator, I don't know the details of what — if any — investigation is ongoing, but I can certainly assure you that if it's America against Russia, or America against any other country, I think everyone in this room knows which side I'm on," Rosenstein said.

In a surprising turn, members of the committee spent some time clashing with each other — over the questioning of Sessions in January. Sessions clarified his testimony to the committee in writing on Monday, after the Washington Post reported he had given a misleading answer to Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.

The three-page letter wasn't enough for Franken.

"I think Sen. Sessions should come back. I think he owes it to the committee to come back and to explain himself," Franken said.

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

"I consider what Sen. Franken asked Sessions at that late moment — just as that story [had] come out — a gotcha question," he said.

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.

"It can't be a gotcha question if he didn't answer the question," Franken said. "So the thing that got him was him saying he had not met with Russians, but that wasn't even my question." Franken had asked about what Sessions would do as attorney general if it came out that Trump campaign associates had connections with Russian officials — not whether Sessions himself had any contact.

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

"We need steel spines, not weak knees when it comes to political independence in the Department of Justice," she said.

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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...

FRANKEN: I...

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.