Leahy joins proxy war over Russia’s role in election

Patrick Leahy

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talks to Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., before Tuesday’s confirmation hearing. Photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee turned a typically sleepy session into a partisan duel Tuesday when a hearing to confirm Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ top two deputies became a battle over the proper course for investigating possible Russian meddling during the 2016 election.

President Donald Trump’s nominees who testified Tuesday were Rachel Brand, seeking to be associate attorney general, and Rod Rosenstein, nominated to be deputy attorney general.

Rosenstein faced the most scrutiny Tuesday because, if confirmed to the No. 2 position at the Department of Justice, he would oversee the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of potential collusion between Trump associates and the Russian government throughout the campaign.

Rosenstein’s oversight role would include making the crucial decision of whether to proceed with any formal charges based on evidence presented by the FBI. Sessions recused himself from making that decision last week after The Washington Post revealed that the former Alabama senator had met the Russian ambassador twice during election season.

Sessions’ contacts with Russia contradicted testimony he gave to Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during his confirmation process to be attorney general.

Sessions Leahy

Sens. Patrick Leahy and Jeff Sessions in one of their appearances on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” Photo courtesy of Patrick Leahy

Leahy and other Democrats have called on Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to bring Sessions back before the committee to clarify his relationship with Russia. And while those calls have so far fallen on deaf ears, Leahy again appealed to Grassley on Tuesday, contending that Russian meddling in the election would be “just as serious as Watergate.”

“I’ve thought about this — I was in Vermont over the weekend and I spent a lot of time going over it,” Leahy said. “I cannot remember anything in my years here that has troubled me more than to have another country try to interfere.”

For his part, Rosenstein promised Tuesday to be an impartial administrator, saying that “political affiliation is irrelevant to my work.”

But under questioning from Senate Democrats, Rosenstein declined to commit to appointing a special prosecutor to oversee any investigation related to Trump’s ties to Russia, saying, “I’m not aware of any requirement for me to recuse at this time.”

“As far as I’m concerned, every investigation conducted by the Department of Justice is an independent investigation,” Rosenstein said. “We prosecute tens of thousands of people every year, and every one of those defendants deserves an independent prosecutor. And so I would be certain we had independent investigators to conduct those investigations.”

Department rules call for the appointment of a special prosecutor should involvement by federal prosecutors “present a conflict of interest for the department.”

Rosenstein said Sessions asked him to become deputy attorney general during a phone call
Nov. 28. Rosenstein said the call was the first contact between the two, adding there were no discussions with Sessions on the topic of the former Alabama senator’s communications with Russia.

Chairman Grassley insisted Rosenstein’s “independence is beyond reproach” and that “any talk of a special counsel is premature, at best.”

“Any insinuation that Mr. Rosenstein lacks the impartiality or professionalism necessary to handle these matters is out of line,” Grassley added. “He’s a career civil servant who’s served with distinction at both Bush and Obama administrations.”

Rosenstein, who serves as the U.S. attorney for Maryland, has been working in the Justice Department for 26 years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, each testified Tuesday that Rosenstein was a fair, impartial public servant.

“His duty will be to serve justice and not political leaders,” Van Hollen said Tuesday.

As Grassley noted, former Attorney General Eric Holder directed Rosenstein and U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen in 2012 to oversee leak investigations during President Obama’s tenure. While Republicans called for a special prosecutor to investigate the leaks — which included revelations on sensitive foreign intelligence operations — Democrats opposed a special prosecutor, and Holder defended Rosenstein’s impartiality.

“I have every confidence in their abilities to doggedly follow the facts and the evidence in the pursuit of justice wherever it leads,” Holder said at the time of Rosenstein and the other prosecutor.

In 2012 Leahy, who was then Judiciary chairman, said he had discussed the appointments of Rosenstein and Machen with Holder, hailing them both as “the epitome of professional prosecutors” who are “strong, capable, independent.”

Jasper Craven

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. Read more

Email: jcraven@vtdigger.org

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  • Chet Greenwood

    I have no problem with this investigation (actually it is a witch hunt) IF the Democrats would accept the results.
    Sen Leahy & Co could save some time and just ask John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary’s campaign and a partner in the Podesta Group who received $170,000 in 2016 by representing Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank and with ties to Russian intelligence. AND, the Podesta Group failed to register with FARA when they represented the bank.
    Seems like we only want to investigate the other side- not our own!

  • David Dudley

    The are just mad because the Democratic Party was caught trying to rig the election against Sanders.

  • Edward Letourneau

    I’ve seen enough of the whining from these people to know I will never vote for them again. They need to be investigation what the DNC was doing to rig the primary, and not the people who preformed a public service by telling us.

  • James Hall

    Leahy knows or should know the Russians, their tendencies, and all the stuff that goes into their doings that are termed spying and such. He sat on an intell committee a few years back, so he is attempting to convince the voters he is doing something. After 40+ years in DC, he should have most of the info needed to move onward. Time will tell, but my inclination says it is a smokescreen.

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