Rod Rosenstein faces contentious confirmation hearing on Russia

Praised on both sides of the aisle, Rosenstein would enter a political storm at Justice.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, thrust into the contentious debate over Russian involvement in last year's election, is set to face a litany of questions at his confirmation hearing Tuesday over how he would oversee the investigation of those allegations.

Rosenstein, whom President Donald Trump nominated in late January to serve as deputy attorney general, will be pressured by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to agree to appoint a special prosecutor to examine Russia's involvement in the election as well as its interactions with the Trump campaign.

Appointed as Maryland's top federal prosecutor by Republican President George W. Bush in 2005 and retained under President Barack Obama, Rosenstein has broad, bipartisan support in the state. He will be introduced Tuesday by Maryland's two Democratic senators.

But Attorney General Jeff Session' decision last week to recuse himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign potentially puts Rosenstein at the center of any such probe, leaving to him the responsibility to oversee it or turn it over to an independent attorney.

"It's likely to be highly charged," Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said of Rosenstein's hearing. "It wasn't what he was preparing for just a little bit ago."

Several Democrats on the committee are likely to seek assurances that Rosenstein would allow a probe to continue, even if it involved the White House. Others want Rosenstein to commit to appoint a special prosecutor, arguing that such an arrangement is the only way to keep politics at a distance.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Judiciary Committee member, said Monday he would attempt to block Rosenstein's confirmation unless he agrees to a special prosecutor.

"We cannot be distracted by President Trump's tweets, which are designed to divert attention from Russian election meddling, possible collusion with Trump officials, and a potential White House cover-up," Blumenthal, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York made a similar assertion Sunday.

"I am urging [Rosenstein] at that hearing to say that he will appoint a special prosecutor to look into this," Schumer told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Other senior Democrats on the committee contacted by The Baltimore Sun, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois, did not weigh in on Rosenstein's nomination.

Rosenstein, 52, will likely have plenty of room to maneuver around such questioning. If he has not yet been briefed about the FBI's investigations, he can tell senators he cannot make a determination about a special prosecutor until he is.

Rosenstein declined to comment for this article.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa is expected to question the need for a special counsel during his opening remarks Tuesday. The Republican will note that Democrats did not seek a similar independent review during controversies that arose under the Obama administration.

"It would be easier to credit calls for special counsels if they were made with some consistency and intellectual honesty," according to excerpts from his remarks released by the committee late Monday.

"There are times when special counsels are appropriate. But it's far too soon to tell here," he is expected to say. "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."

The deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position at Justice, runs the department's day-to-day operations. It is a job Tobias said Rosenstein is uniquely qualified to fill as a "consummate professional [and] career prosecutor."

He has won high marks in Maryland and has taken on several high-profile cases.

Rosenstein prosecuted Black Guerrilla Family gang members, inmates and corrections officers who devised a massive contraband smuggling scheme at the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013. He alleged a similar scheme at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover last year, filing the largest federal indictment in Maryland history.

On Thursday, Rosenstein announced federal racketeering charges against seven Baltimore police officers who prosecutors said were shaking down citizens, filing false court paperwork and making fraudulent overtime claims.

The move came as Sessions has sought to emphasize police work and has indicated the administration will be more hesitant to launch the kinds of civil rights investigations that led to a pending consent decree with the city of Baltimore this year.

But Rosenstein is no stranger to complicated investigations that are intertwined with politics. He was associate independent counsel under Kenneth W. Starr, who oversaw the Whitewater investigation into real estate dealings involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. He left for Maryland before the examination turned toward Monica Lewinsky's relationship with the former president.

In 2012, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. tapped Rosenstein, along with the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to investigate intelligence leaks that Republicans claimed were orchestrated to boost President Barack Obama in an election year. At the time, Republicans were demanding a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate.

Rosenstein, a Bethesda resident, grew up near Philadelphia, graduating with an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986 and Harvard Law School three years later.

He went on to clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, appointed to the appellate bench by President Ronald Reagan. Rosenstein became a trial attorney within the Justice Department's public integrity section in 1990 and took a job in the deputy attorney general's office in 1993 under President Clinton.

The Senate voted unanimously in 2005 to confirm his nomination as U.S. attorney.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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