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Democrats seek special counsel to investigate Russian election interference

Senator Dianne Feinstein. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee called Tuesday for the appointment of a special counsel to lead the criminal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, saying the appointment was necessary to shield the inquiry from the appearance of political interference by the Trump administration.

“This is about more than just one individual,” said the Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. “This is about the integrity of the process and the public’s faith in our institution of justice.”

But the panel’s Republican chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said he saw no need for the appointment of a special counsel as the panel took up the confirmation of Trump’s nominee to be deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.


“There are times when special counsels are appropriate,” Grassley said in his opening statement. “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.”

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing any criminal investigation into 2016 campaign matters, Rosenstein would be in charge of that case if he is confirmed.

The circumstances that led Sessions to step aside — the revelation that he had spoken twice to the Russian ambassador last year, despite telling Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, at his own confirmation hearing that he had no contact with Russians — led to a heated moment.

Franken read from a letter that Sessions sent to the committee Monday that insisted his answer had been true because he understood Franken’s question to be about Russian contacts in his role as a surrogate for the Trump campaign, not his role as a senator, and said he had not previously seen a need to correct or supplement that answer because no one had “suggested otherwise.”


Franken called that “insulting” and demanded that Sessions be called back before the panel. Grassley, raising his voice, accused Franken of having asked Sessions a “gotcha question,” and the two briefly shouted over each other.

In rejecting Democratic calls for a special prosecutor, Grassley noted that Rosenstein — the US attorney for the district of Maryland — was a longtime prosecutor who served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Feinstein, however, said her call was not related to Rosenstein’s integrity, but the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. She also said that the prosecutor should be a nonpartisan person who is appointed “independently” rather than by the attorney general.

However, the law that permitted the appointment of an independent counsel by a three-judge panel, rather than by the attorney general, has expired. Under Justice Department regulations for special counsels, Rosenstein, if confirmed, would essentially be the attorney general for the purpose of the Russia case since Sessions recused himself. It would be Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel, who would answer to him.

The exchange came at the opening of a Judiciary Committee hearing on whether to confirm Rosenstein, as well as for Rachel Brand, whom Trump has nominated to be the associate attorney general, the Justice Department’s third-ranking official.

In response to early questions, Rosenstein said that although Russian interference in the election was the “issue du jour on Capitol Hill,” he argued that all prosecutions the department brings should be “independent” from any inappropriate influence.


He also said he could not recall meeting with any Russians in the course of his career and demurred when asked about whether he supported the appointment of a special counsel, saying that he has not yet been briefed on any investigation the department may have into the 2016 election.

“I am simply not in a position to answer the question because I don’t know the information,” he told Feinstein.

But Feinstein pointed to the decision in 2003 by James Comey, who was then the deputy attorney general and is now FBI director, to bring in an outsider to investigate a leak of the CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity that might be tied to the Bush White House. That case led to the conviction of I. Lewis Libby, a top aide to the vice president, Dick Cheney, for making false statements to the FBI. (Bush later granted him clemency.)

Feinstein said cases like the Plame leak showed the need for independent, outside eyes to examine allegations of wrongdoing that might lead back to the White House, as she said could happen in the current controversy over Russia’s election meddling.

She appeared to grow frustrated as Rosenstein explained the circumstances and legal issues that might influence his decision about whether to hold on to the investigation himself or bring in an outsider.


“I’m trying to figure out what your bottom line is,” she told him at one point.

Democrats repeatedly pressed Rosenstein to respond to descriptions of Russian interference in the 2016 election, reading excerpts from an unclassified intelligence community report that concluded that President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered an influence operation to harm Hillary Clinton’s electability and potential presidency and to help Trump.