A confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions’ deputy attorney general flared into a renewed fight over whether the attorney general had lied to Congress about his “communications with the Russians” during the 2016 election.
Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, demanded that Sessions return in person to explain his comment to the Senate judiciary committee that “I did not have communications with the Russians”. News reports later revealed Sessions had met at least twice with the Russian ambassador during the time he served as a top surrogate for the Trump campaign.
“I have bent over backward not to say that he lied. He needs to come back,” Franken said. “He should come back and explain himself, Mr Chairman. I think he owes that to us.”
The Republican senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee, praised Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and accused Franken of surprising Sessions with an unfair question that he did not have enough information to answer. “It was a gotcha question,” Grassley said.
“It was not a gotcha question, sir,” Franken shot back.
Questions about the independence of any federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the election – and any communications that Donald Trump’s affiliates may have had with Russia about this interference – turned what might have been a sleepy confirmation hearing for the justice department’s No 2 and No 3 spots into a political battleground.
Sessions recused himself from overseeing any election-related investigations last week, in the wake of bipartisan pressure over his failure to mention his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, while testifying under oath. That recusal put the power to oversee any justice department investigation of Russia’s interference in the hands of the yet-to-be-confirmed deputy attorney general.
Under repeated questioning from Democrats, Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general, refused to promise that he would appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“I’m not in a position to answer the question,” he told Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had asked him if he would appoint a special prosecutor. “I’m not in a position to know the facts that they know,” he said, referring to his justice department predecessors.
Rosenstein noted that Loretta Lynch, Obama’s attorney general, and the acting deputy attorney general, Dana Boente, both had the power to appoint a special prosecutor and had not done so. He did not rule out the possibility of appointing a special prosecutor, and said he would do so if appropriate.
Pressed repeatedly by Senator Richard Durbin to clarify the scope of Sessions’ recusal from any election investigations as outlined in the attorney general’s Thursday letter, Rosenstein again said he did not have enough information to answer, in the only exchange in the hearing that appeared to ruffle Rosenstein’s composure.
Rosenstein, a well-regarded career prosecutor with a reputation for integrity and a non-partisan approach, served both Bush and Obama as the US attorney for Maryland – making him a rare holdover between Republican and Democratic administrations. Senators on both sides of the aisle were quick to praise his credentials and his fairness.
“I do not say this because I question the integrity or ability of Mr Rosenstein, I do not,” Feinstein said as she pressed for a special prosecutor. “But this is about more than just one individual. This is about the integrity of the process and the public’s faith in our institutions of justice.”
Republicans argued it was too soon to make a determination about a special prosecutor, with Grassley calling that request “premature at best”.
Rosenstein was calm and cordial in response to the Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal’s pledge to oppose his nomination if he would not promise to appoint a special prosecutor on Russia, saying: “I do not take it personally.
“I’ve thought a lot about his issue, senator. You view it as an issue of principle that I need to a commit to a special prosecutor.”
In contrast, he said: “I view it as a matter of principle that I should not be taking a position on this.
“Every investigation conducted by the Department of Justice is an independent investigation,” Rosenstein repeatedly argued throughout the hearing.
He told the committee said he was not aware of any reason he would have to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the election, but that “I would need to familiarize myself with the facts”. He himself, he said, did not recall having any meetings with Russian officials, though he said he had spoken in the past to visiting lawyers from other countries, and Russians may have been among them.
Rosenstein said his first contact with Jeff Sessions about his role in the administration had been in a phone call on 28 November, and that he had not discussed whether he would appoint a special prosecutor on Russia with either Sessions or the White House.
On Thursday, the justice department released a letter from Sessions responding to Democratic senators’ demand that he appear before the committee again to answer questions about his “incomplete and misleading” testimony, and his failure to correct the record before the Washington Post made his meetings with the Russian ambassador public. In the letter, Sessions said that his answer to the question that Franken had posed him was “correct” and that he had answered “honestly”.
“I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian Ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them,” Sessions wrote.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Franken said called this response “insulting”.
Franken and other Democrats argued that Sessions needed to appear in front of the Senate judiciary committee to answer more questions about his comments, including follow-up questions about the content of his conversations with the Russian ambassador.