President Trump’s deputy attorney general nominee has just been catapulted into the national spotlight.
With Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsSanders: 'What do the Russians have on Mr. Trump?' Poll: Trump controversies make him more popular among supporters More than ever, Justice must demand a special prosecutor for Trump-Russia probe MORE’s decision Thursday to recuse himself from any investigations into Russia’s connections to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration Mulvaney: Let states figure out 'essential health benefits' How President Trump can restore sanity to America's labor laws MORE's presidential campaign, focus is turning to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) secondary leaders.
Sessions’s recusal comes just a few days ahead of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for deputy attorney general pick Rod Rosenstein — who may ultimately make decisions about a DOJ probe into Russia.
Rosenstein is also the nation’s longest serving U.S. attorney.
In 2007, Bush nominated Rosenstein to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, but he never got a hearing or a vote in the Senate.
Maryland’s Democratic senators at the time — Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiAfter 30 years celebrating women’s history, have we made enough progress? DC restaurant owners sue Trump hotel over unfair competition: report Meet the Trump pick who could lead Russia probe MORE and Ben CardinBen CardinMaking water infrastructure a priority Senators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate confirms Trump's pick for Israel ambassador MORE — argued then that he lacked a background in state legal experience and said he was doing such a good job in his post that he shouldn’t be elevated to the federal bench, which hears appeals from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and federal administrative agencies.
The Washington Post called those arguments unpersuasive in a 2007 editorial and dubbed Rosenstein “a worthy nominee.”
After graduating form Harvard Law School, Rosenstein clerked for Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before joining the DOJ in 1990.
He was on the team of prosecutors handling the Whitewater investigation into Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonWarren: 'Today is a great day... but I'm not doing a touchdown dance' Hollywood stars weigh in on GOP pulling healthcare bill Hillary Clinton: Today was a victory, 'but this fight isn't over yet' MORE’s Arkansas business dealings in the mid-1990s, according to a Washington Post 2011 profile, and has spent his career as a federal prosecutor cracking down on gang violence and public corruption.
On Tuesday, Rosenstein will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely to face sharp questions from ranking Democrat Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDems get it wrong: 'Originalism' is mainstream, even for liberal judges Human rights leaders warn against confirming Gorsuch Feinstein sees slipping support among California voters: poll MORE (Calif.) and Sens. Al FrankenAl FrankenFriends, foes spar in fight on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Lawmakers share photos of their dogs in honor of National Puppy Day Franken challenges witness endorsement of Gorsuch MORE (D-Minn.), Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senators demand Pentagon action after nude photo scandal Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings MORE (D-Conn.) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch rewrites playbook for confirmation hearings Gorsuch: I'm 'sorry' for ruling against autistic student MORE (D-Ill.) about how he might handle investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election or ties to the Trump campaign.
A timeline for final confirmation of Rosenstein is unclear. Should the DOJ launch an investigation into Trump campaign connections to Russia before he is sworn in to his new role, acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente would helm the probe.
Trump appointed Boente in late January after firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates hours after she refused to defend his controversial travel ban.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, doubts Rosenstein will have any trouble getting the simple majority vote he needs for confirmation.
“Always in the past, the deputy attorney general has been someone who’s very active in Democratic or Republican politics, who doesn’t have what Rosenstein brings, which is a longer view and an independence, professionalism and an understanding of the department and how it’s operated,” he said.
“I think he’s a nice pick, especially with Sessions as a more political pick at the top. It’s a good balance.”
Democrats say Sessions’s recusal is not enough and are calling for him to resign following accusations that he lied under oath.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Sessions spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. That contradicts what Sessions told Franken during his confirmation hearing, when the Minnesota senator asked what he would do if he saw evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 presidential race.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions, a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at the time. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
The attorney general doubled-down on that answer Thursday, saying his reply to Franken’s question “was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.”
“I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct,” he said. “I will write the Judiciary Committee soon, today or tomorrow, to explain this testimony for the record.”
In recusing himself from any investigations, Sessions said he is upholding a promise he made during his confirmation hearings.
The FBI is reportedly investigating contact between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign, but no formal charges have been brought.
Any decisions about whether to bring charges will fall to Rosenstein once he’s confirmed.