Last Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would recuse himself from investigations into alleged connections between Russian government operatives and the Trump campaign. Absent a special prosecutor, however, Sessions will be handing the baton to a subordinate — the deputy attorney general, another politically appointed position.
The nominee for that position, Federal Prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, is slated to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation on Tuesday.
Unless Rosenstein goes one step further than his future boss and pledges to appoint a special prosecutor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is vowing to make the confirmation hearing a fight.
I'll use every possible tool to block DOJ Deputy AG nominee unless he commits to appoint independent special prosecutor
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) March 5, 2017
Blumenthal elaborated at a press conference in Connecticut on Monday morning.
“I believe strongly that a special prosecutor is necessary, in fact it is vital to not only uncover the truth about Russian interference into our democratic institutions, and a possible cover-up including false statements made by Trump officials, but also to the trust and credibility of the justice department itself,” he said.
Blumenthal listed three specific areas that the special prosecutor should investigate: the Russian meddling in the US election, apparent ties to Russia and possible collusion on the part of the Trump campaign, and the false statements and potential cover up after the election by members of the Trump administration, including Sessions and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“Only a special prosecutor can pursue those three areas with a view to not only investigating, but also acting on criminal charges,” said Blumenthal. “So I will be demanding that the deputy attorney general nominee commit to appointing a special prosecutor, which is his responsibility alone now that Jeff Sessions has recused himself.”
Rosenstein is a veteran federal prosecutor, and is widely respected on both sides of the aisle. Originally appointed by President George W. Bush, he kept his post under the Obama administration. But as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein will be serving under Sessions — who, as Blumenthal notes, may now be under the investigation himself.
Sessions was heavily involved with the Trump campaign and met with Russian government officials twice before the election, though he said he hadn’t in his Senate confirmation hearings.
Absent a special prosecutor, Justice Department subordinates like Rosenstein may be responsible for investigating their boss, and will be responsible for investigating the administration that gave them their jobs.
Many congressional Democrats, as a result, say Sessions’ recusal isn’t enough to separate the Trump administration and campaign from the investigation. Blumenthal is the first, however, to link those calls to Rosenstein’s confirmation hearing.
As with other Trump administration political appointees, however, Rosenstein can be confirmed in the Senate on the strength of Republican votes alone. Democrats can’t block his confirmation, but they can delay it through parliamentary tactics, and use his confirmation hearing as a podium to advocate for a special prosecutor.
That seems to be what Blumenthal is promising — to delay Rosenstein’s confirmation as long as possible within the confines of Senate rules.
“There are limits as to how much and how long we can [delay], but I will use every tool available to prevent this nomination if Rod Rosenstein does not commit to appointing a special prosecutor,” Blumenthal said, promising to insist on a special prosecutor in the hearing and mount delays both in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Senate Floor.
He also pointed to a precedent: In 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson was confirmed under the condition that he appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate Scandal. Richardson later resigned rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox on Nixon’s orders, in what has become known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Blumenthal’s call comes amidst polls indicating that most Americans agree that a special prosecutor is necessary to avoid partiality.
According to a new CNN poll, almost two thirds of Americans say a special prosecutor should investigate contacts between Russian operatives and members of the Trump campaign. By contrast, just 32 percent trust Congress to handle the investigation.
In the American public, that support is still somewhat divided on partisan lines, with support for an independent special prosecutor being higher among Democrats and Independents than Republicans. Still, 43 percent of Republicans support the call for a special prosecutor, along with 82 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Independents.
This post has been updated with further comments from Sen. Blumenthal.