Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday threw his support behind Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was recently targeted by conservative Republicans in Congress who have moved to impeach him over his handling of the Russia investigation.
“Rod Rosenstein is highly capable. . . . I have the highest confidence in him,’’ Sessions said in Boston, where he participated in a news conference announcing a crackdown on undocumented immigrants collecting federal services.
A Republican and former US senator, Sessions urged the Republican-controlled Congress to turn its attention away from attacking Rosenstein and the Justice Department and instead pay attention to more significant national concerns.
He said lawmakers should be focused on closing loopholes in the country’s immigration laws instead. “That’s where I’d like their focus to be,’’ Sessions said.
His comments came shortly before House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., that he does not support the effort to impeach Rosenstein.
“I don’t think we should be cavalier with this process or with this term,’’ Ryan said.
Ryan made the comments a day after the group of House Republicans filed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein, following months of criticism aimed at the Justice Department — and the Russia investigation in particular — from President Trump and his GOP allies in Congress.
The five impeachment articles would charge Rosenstein with ‘‘high crimes and misdemeanors’’ for failing to produce information to congressional committees and signing off on what some Republicans say was improper surveillance of a Trump adviser.
Back in Boston on Thursday, Sessions also commented on a speech he gave Tuesday to conservative high school students, where he repeated the phrase “lock her up,” a chant that Trump’s supporters used during the 2016 campaign to call for jailing Democrat Hillary Clinton, who was running against the Republican Trump.
“I met with a group of enthusiastic high school students and they spontaneously broke [into chants]. Perhaps I should have taken a moment to remind them of the fact that people are presumed innocent until cases are made,” he said.
Conservative hard-liners agreed to hold off on pushing for an impeachment vote on Thursday after securing a commitment from GOP leaders to punish Justice Department officials with a contempt of Congress if they do not deliver specified documents in the coming weeks.
The deal essentially puts off the showdown until after lawmakers return from a five-week recess set to begin after Thursday’s votes. The lawmakers spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The 11 Republicans, led by Representatives Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, filed their resolution to impeach Rosenstein late Wednesday in a direct attack on a Trump administration law enforcement official.
The Justice Department insists that it has cooperated with the demands from Congress. Officials have said that they have provided the vast majority of information sought in subpoenas from two key House committees — and are nearly done with providing all the outstanding information requested in those subpoenas.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, said earlier Thursday that he supports the effort by conservative lawmakers to impeach Rosenstein, calling it ‘‘leverage’’ to get the Justice Department to provide Congress with more documents related to the Russia probe.
Scalise, who is the third-ranking Republican in the House and is eyeing a bid to become speaker, said during an interview with Fox News that he would vote for the resolution if it reaches the floor.
‘‘It’s more about leverage to let the Justice Department know we’re serious about getting the final information they haven’t sent us,’’ Scalise told The Washington Post.
‘‘This is another tool to get Justice to comply with our subpoenas and our demands for documents that the American people deserve to get,’’ he said. ‘‘They need to start complying. Obviously they have given us a number of things, but they’ve still held back some of the documents we need to get as part of our oversight.’’
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, suggested slowing down the process, saying that the Justice Department should comply with documents requests but that the resolution should be dealt with in a committee first before being considered on the floor.
‘‘People are discussing’’ how to handle the situation, McCarthy said. ‘‘What everybody’s trying to do is get the information. I think what would make this resolution go away is to supply the information to the House.’’
Democrats have said that House Republicans’ clashes with Rosenstein are little more than a pretext to weaken Mueller’s efforts.
Some Republicans questioned the wisdom of the impeachment effort.
‘‘Reckless publicity stunt,’’ Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida tweeted Wednesday night. ‘‘No different from Dems who filed articles of impeachment against the President some months ago. What a sad, pathetic game of ‘how low can you go?’ ”
Meadows and Jordan are leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, a bloc whose members have been among the most persistent critics of Rosenstein. All 11 lawmakers who filed the resolution are members.
In a joint statement Wednesday, the top Democrats on three House committees called the resolution a ‘‘direct attack’’ on the Mueller probe and warned President Donald Trump not to use it as a pretext to fire Rosenstein or Mueller.
‘‘Any attempt to do so will be viewed by Congress and the American people as further proof of an effort to obstruct justice with severe consequences for Trump and his presidency,’’ said Representatives Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Adam B. Schiff of California.